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Don’t be derailed by Progress confrontation

This week, former General Secretary of the CWU Alan Johnson has issued an unabashed attack on trade union influence within the Labour Party in an interview with Progress, part of an increasingly confrontational and destructive approach to dictating Labour Party policy from the Blairite wing. Jacqui Smith’s now regular articles, including hers on Osborne’s welfare trap before the recent benefit cap vote, follow in a similar vein and indicate a growing unrest amongst the Labour right as the next election grows closer and they increasingly try to assert their influence.

Ed Miliband’s decision to challenge the Tories on benefit cuts offered a glimpse of the political leadership necessary for an economic alternative to the cuts. That broke with the strategy advocated by Progress and the neo-liberal right of the party and he was vindicated in subsequent polling. Despite the shrewd victory over the Tories that Miliband secured, with favourable coverage in most mainstream media the ‘Surrender Tendency’ claim would never be reported over resisting cuts, figures like Johnson continue to rewrite history and predict electoral disaster unless the Labour Party hugs close to the Tory strategy of slash-and-burn austerity.

Ed Miliband should be reassured that whenever he has challenged the status quo, often defying the basic tenets of the Labour right’s dogma in the process, he has been successful and won plaudits, strengthening both his leadership and his position in the polls. The commitment to market orthodoxy and political triangulation of the Labour right cannot win back those voters it lost.

Building on the momentum and genuine outrage over regressive measures such as the benefit cap and the bedroom tax, as the human effects of Tory barbarism comes to be more widely felt, Miliband should carve out a pro-growth platform of state intervention using resources horded by banks and private business, and tucked away in offshore tax havens.

Miliband must offer significantly more than Balls’ five point plan, by resurrecting schools building programmes, tackling the legacy of hospital PFI payments, and by challenging the market failure of privatised industries. The Fair Fares campaign is exposing the exorbitant cost of privatised rail transport failure, which has consistently failed to provide better service, while the planned 24% fare increase between 2011 and 2015 is harming both business and the environment. Maria Eagle has made encouraging noises as to rethinking rail transport policy, and Miliband can afford to be bold in offering a transport alternative based on public ownership and putting rail users before shareholders.

Similarly, Miliband’s emphasis on fair energy costs is moving in the right direction, and the very least he should do is increase regulation in energy provision to cut tariffs and enforce an investment fund in renewable energy.

With standards of living falling drastically since the Coalition took power, Miliband needs to improve people’s spending powers, and he has recognised this in his discussions about ‘predistribution’. He should commit to legislating for a statutory living wage and use his existing powers to increase the national minimum wage,  end Labour’s support for the public sector pay freeze, oppose the coalition’s policies on council tax benefit and the market rates of social housing, and introduce regulation in private renting. All of these policies go hand in hand in increasing the money in people’s pockets necessary to get consumer society growing again, and can all be achieved legislatively, while guaranteeing an increase in both consumer spending and tax coffers.

Where Johnson is wrong is that that all of these kinds of policies are advocated by the TUC, and are not simply the diktats of Unite’s leadership. Johnson attempts to draw a false distinction between the Frances O’Grady and Len McCluskey, as to draw a line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of trade unionism, but the division he points to does not exist.

He also tries to claim that trade unions are ungrateful for the 13 years of Labour government (‘it’s the Blairites wot won it’) and claims that unions’ short memories have led them to replicate a ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ mentality. He also fails to acknowledge that the regressive anti-union legislation instituted by the Thatcher government was left in place under New Labour, with the UK possessing some of the most restrictive trade union legislation in all of Europe.

At a time when workers’ rights and trade unions are under perpetual assault by a rabidly anti-union Coalition government, figures like Johnson and Progress are engaging in a nakedly anti-working class agenda intent on preserving their old outdated ideology. Johnson claims that the trade unions are antiquated, out-of-touch and that they need to ‘get out into the communities’ (and get out of Labour politics, one presumes), yet it is Johnson who appears to think the political landscape has not changed since 1997.

When the Labour Party can only boast around 250,000 members as opposed to the 6 million trade unionists, perhaps it is Labour who should learn from the unions about how to get out into the communities and engage ordinary people. One successful way to do this would be to make sure politicians look more like the people they represent, and this includes the promotion of working-class MPs which Johnson calls ‘inverted snobbery’.

Johnson says the unions are increasingly irrelevant, but despite the oxygen he is afforded by political journalists, it is the politics of Progress that are a danger to a Labour Party seeking to win back support from working class voters and win in 2015. There is a positive agenda that challenges the Tories, let’s take it.

This article first appeared at Next Generation Labour


  1. Jon Williams says:

    Basically how can you convince a majority of the electorate to support your proposals? Yes I agree with the general thread of unions are a benefit to the Labour Party but some of the language is outdated and will deter people in the south from voting Labour – however relevant it seems to Labour activists e.g. ideology, unionism, public ownership and public spending. More modern terminology / words are required, perhaps pre-distribution and not for profit companies??

    And yes it’s hard to deny Blair did win three elections in a row…

  2. Matty says:

    Blair did win 3 elections but the 97 election was the equivalent of scoring an open goal, the Tories were in disarray and had been since the ERM fiasco in 1992, 2 years before Blair arrived. The 2001 and 2005 elections both saw significant falls in the Labour vote, again with the Tories seen as right-wing and divided.
    As for the achievements like the minimum wage that Johnson boasts about, that was only Labour policy because of major campaigning from the likes of UNISON. One of the first things Blair did as leader was water down the minimum wage policy so that it is far lower than it should be.

  3. john P Reid says:

    How ca a magazine that unlike militant be infultrators ,they don’t try to get their supporters (not members) to go to loocal meetings an deuse block votes to try to get local CLP’s to oust sitting M.P.s by getting their lot on to positions in local parties,

    and Blair did get things for trade unions via Europe or unions in GC HQ, regarding the 97 victory the tories were massively unpopular in 86 and 91 yet come back and won, and at one stage in 1993 the tories were only 1% ahead after back wednesday, i believe had Jhn asmith lived the tories would have won, labour did things for the unions, ,also of the 6million unioists, some of them are tories, some supoport unions like the PCS which don’t support labour, you also mention labour getting the working class vote back as if trade unioinsts are all working class, most aren’t,

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      John P Reid: The first use of the word ‘Militant’ was in the headline “Militant Moderate” to the interview in the Progress magazine with Alan Johnson. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the Militant typeface in reproducing that headline.

  4. GS says:

    I had come to very much like Alan Johnson, when he was Shadow Chancellor and seemed to be pursuing a much more left-wing economic policy than Darling or Balls.

    But between this Progress interview and his TV interview defending David Nicholson and the Thatcherite NHS management that presided over the Mid-Staffs failings, I’m struggling to have anything but contempt for him. So because the unions only have 6 million members they should be less involved in the Labour Party – and leave it all to the 190,000 constituency members and the ridiculously out-of-touch PLP? Yeah, that’ll make for more representative policies and candidates.

  5. Alex says:

    John P Reid:-

    Progress do train their own candidates for Labour Party selections. They differ from Militant in that they don’t adhere to strict democratic centralism and as such are not a homogenous bloc.

  6. David Ellis says:

    In the same week that Johnson bewails trade union influence in the labour party andy nooman bewails the political influence of the SWP in the trade unions. Are they working in tandem? Nooman wants the SWP excluded because it failed to deal with a rape allegation appropriately but he doesn’t mind the continued influence of a gang of war criminals responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis continuing to plug their pernicious imperialist influence in the defensive organisations of the working class. I think its called a pincer movement and Nooman should be given a safe seat as reward.

  7. Dave says:

    The similarities between the Trots and Progress infiltrators are striking: the same undemocratic, top-down command and control structures; the same fundamentalist, unimaginative and intellectually cowardly approach to policy and the same hero-worship for their respective Dear Leaders.

    The irrelevance of both becomes daily more apparent. How long before Lord Sainsbury takes another leaf from the Trot book and appears on street corners, trying to flog-off Progress’s remaindered literature, shouting: “Support the bosses, smash the unions!” to bewildered passers-by?

  8. David Ellis says:

    The truly pernicious clique in the Labour Party is the New Labour mob funded by the likes of Lord Sainsbury. They are the sect to end all sects. Truly a party within a party with the money coming from anywhere but the labour movement.

    As for Militant, they were ineffective because they didn’t have a world view much different from the fake labour lefties most of whom ended up as Blairites.

  9. Chris says:

    Why are Progress in the same party as us?

  10. John Reid says:

    Chris if you don’t like progress being in the Labour Party ‘you could leave, progress do have prefered candidates for nec elections, but they dont try to get rid of candidates like militant

  11. Dave says:

    Chris: “Why are Progress in the same party as us?”

    If they stood for election with their own policies under the Progress banner they’d probably score fewer votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party. Hence their reliance on the Labour voters whose loyalty they have done much to diminish.

    And this is why they’re so keen on standing in safe seats in Labour’s heartlands – haven’t noticed them queuing up to fight safe Tory seats, even though they’re always banging on about needing to win such seats and, one supposes, offer Tory-like policies for that purpose.

  12. John Reid says:

    Save blakes first election was a safe Tory seat, as for if progress stood as a different party, recall the party that lord Sainsbury funded before progress the SDP they got 3 million extra votes than the liberals use to get in the 80’s

  13. John Reid says:

    Should have read Blairs ( damn corrective text)

  14. Dave says:

    John R: “the party that lord Sainsbury funded before progress the SDP they got 3 million extra votes”

    And the Labour vote declined in every election since ’97 – eventually losing 5 million votes.

    Isn’t it about time Lord Sainsbury interfered somewhere else – I believe there are matters requiring urgent attention in Nauru, the remote South Pacific island….

  15. John P Reid says:

    Dave but Labour increased it’s vote beteweeen 1987 and 1997 by 5.2million votes and it was only 4.8 million that labours vote fell by since 97, and Sainsbury’s input fell when brown came in ,in 2005

  16. Dave says:

    “Labour increased it’s vote beteweeen 1987 and 1997”

    That is certainly true, and Tony Blair deserves credit for that – no one voted for him with greater enthusiasm and optimism than myself on that glorious May morn in ’97.

    Unfortunately he didn’t deliver. The radical proposals that proved to be so useful in winning votes: i.e. stakeholder economy, ethical standards in public life, opposition to i.d. cards etc came to nothing and was replaced by an unwholesome and vain neo-liberal messianism.

    Hence the eventually unsustainable decline in votes, beginning soon after Labour took office and leading the the 2010 defeat.

  17. When it comes to seeking selection as a parliamentary candidate, its National Executive Committee’s mighty Organisation Sub-Committee has just decided that membership lists should be available to candidates from the start, rather than, as hitherto, only after shortlisting. The number of permitted leaflets has also been increased from two to three.

    You can bet your life that each of your opponents will be sending out three leaflets to every member, the first at the very start of the nomination process, so you had better do the same. Meaning that you had better have the money to do it. Never mind the increasingly prevalent practice of visiting them all at home. That’s right. Each and every one of them. At home.

    Whom does this favour? Party, think tank and MPs’s staffers? Full-time trade union officials? Senior councillors? How do they necessarily have that much time on their hands? Quite the reverse in the last case, at least. Nor do they have that much financial support necessarily, or even ordinarily, or even very often at all.

    No, as has been pointed out to me by several of my contemporaries who remain in the Labour Party and who I think would make fine MPs, several of whom are in principle open to the idea, securing a Labour nomination, at least for a safe or winnable seat, is increasing a game able to be played only by the persons, the offspring and the courtiers of the massively, independently wealthy.

    Let’s just mention Euan Blair, and the point is made. As it is by reference to Lord Sainsbury and his bankrolling of Progress, that party within the Labour Party which tweets that “Calls for more working-class MPs are just calls for more left-wing trade unionists in Parliament.” The horror!

  18. john reid says:

    david Lindsay progress aren’t a party they’re a magazine that has it’s preferred choices for the NEC and leadership, it doesn’t have the power like the Fabians or co-op to put votes to the party at conferences on issues

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