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Progress: a political embarrassment

Progress-party-within-a-partyDan Hodges is not the most reliable of soothsayers. On the eve of the announcement of Ed Miliband’s victory, the journalist and self-described “Blairite cuckoo” infamously proclaimed that “David Miliband has won.”

But Hodges, who now pops up whenever Newsnight or Sky News require a useful idiot to attack the leadership qualities of Miliband the younger, may have it right this time round. Writing on the Telegraph website, he argues that Progress, the most established pressure group of Blairite Labour, has become “a cowed, timid political irrelevance.”

Progress has not been immune from attack in recent months. After Tony Blair left office in 2007, the group that was conceived as a leadership-loyal think tank morphed into a Blairite factional machine. Last year a fightback began to emerge, with supermarket magnate David Sainsbury’s donations of £1.8 million repeatedly called into question by trade unions, grass-roots activists and MPs.

But for a leading hack of the group’s own politics to defame it in such a way would have been inconceivable even a year ago. There’s no doubt about it – Progress, once proudly promoted by almost all on the Labour right, has become a toxic brand.

This self-immolation isn’t the only sign of Progress slipping into political embarrassment. Even last year, the aura of distaste rising from the organisation was beginning to affect those within.

The quiet resignation of vice-chair and “rising star” Rachel Reeves was a wise move by a sensible tactician. Habitually criticised in the press, Progress has become almost a by-word for hypocritical, moneycentric and outdated politics.

The public recognition of Progress’s sodden state came to light in the recently suspended Twitter account, “@ProgressTips.” Awash with satirical precis of Progress’s happenings, the account can be seen as a further symptom of the organisation’s decline into self-parody. ProgressTips tweeted such observations as: “Say a personal and emotional goodbye to David Miliband tonight. At £500 a pop” and “Send your deputy director to Australia for six months so he can’t do any more damage.”

This was a reference to the despairing Australian Labour Party’s recruitment of Progress fixer-in-chief Richard Angell.

The Twitter account repeatedly held up the organisation as “embarassing,” pointing out its hypocrisy and oversights.

While only 18 months ago, the name “Progress” was fitting in offering exactly that to the careers of ambitious Blairites, it now finds itself the subject of hostility and derision. As Marx once observed, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

But just what was it that irreversibly transformed the connotations of new Labour’s most powerful brand? Once considered untouchable, the group’s reputation was undoubtedly wounded after GMB general secretary Paul Kenny blasted Progress for promoting a “Tory-lite approach from a Labour government,” and called for the outlawing of the organisation as an internal party faction. The “sexy” think tank – to use again Hodges’s terms – became a lot less sexy. No more Nectar points for parliamentary hopefuls, many of whom promptly followed Reeves in disassociating themselves from the group.

Yet perhaps this dispute was merely symptomatic of a wider rejection of the organisation’s agenda and modus operandi. Just as new Labour became old, Progress has become regressive. Clinging to the past glory of the “Tony” days, its website even promotes a page in homage to Blair. A grinning portrait of the ex-PM is accompanied by a lengthy – and misspelled – quotation. We are even invited to “print” the page and, we assume, tape it to our walls.

Like Blair, who recently attacked Miliband’s Labour for “representing the disadvantaged and vulnerable,” Progress is not the bastion of Labour loyalty it was during the new Labour era. When Miliband, after winning the Labour leadership in 2010, declared “new Labour is dead,” Lord Sainsbury ceased giving to the Labour Party and diverted his political donations to Progress.

A shrewd decision – for he knew that the faction would continue to pursue the policies that saw Labour go light on taxing the rich and regulating the banks, and haemorrhage working-class voters.

Some argue that Progress has declined in influence simply because the left is better organised. But the past few years have seen a change in appetite too, from both political activists and the wider public. Successful TV comedies such as The Thick Of It and Twenty Twelve have demonstrated a widespread derision for the jargon and hackery of the Westminster village. The 2009 expenses scandal further cemented the public perception of politicians as hypocrites.

The focus group-obsessed Progress will pay lip-service to these shifts, yet nothing will sway it from its neoliberal agenda. Articles on its website wax lyrical about “standing up for democracy,” yet fail to mention how former Blair minister – and key SDP operator – Andrew Adonis was appointed the organisation’s chairman.

The growing momentum for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, convening on June 22 in London, is testament to the appetite for a different kind of politics. It is a sign of the hunger for a politics beyond platitudes and the consensus of support for the austerity agenda which has crippled Britain’s recovery.

Hodges rightly describes Progress as a “cautionary tale.” Yet in a week in which Ed Balls can simultaneously savage the government’s cuts programme and abandon universal benefits, it is a tale to which the political Establishment has yet to lend an ear.

This article originally appeared in yesterday’s Morning Star

9 Comments

  1. Johnreid says:

    What a load of Rubbish, an attack on a magazine that Taos as a wing of the party, designed as a smear, to try to get the right out of the party.

    Yes Hodges was right it I’d irrelevant, but you say that it’s hypocritical, without giving any evidence, the word hypocritical can. Only be taken as a smear ,Rachel reeves may have resigned as vice chair, for whatever reason, possibly because she hasn’t the time as a front bencher, what’s that got to do with Progress irrelevance, nothing

    Yes hodges, said the magazine is past it, and Hodges wrongly thought that David had won, what trave these two facts got to do with each other? ,nothing, Many of progress contributors, Peter Wheeler, Luke Akehusrt, Ellie Reeves ,backed Ed for leader,

    PAul Kenny calling for Progress to be ousted because they’re Tory lite, is nothing short of Trotskyism, they’re just as entitled to be in our party as any one else.

    Who cares if Andrew Adonis was ex SDP, Livingstone left the party, and backed independents, don’t you want him back in it.

    Who cares if Lord Sainsbury funds the magazine and doesn’t give to labour after Ed won the leadership,it wasn’t Ed saying that New labour was dead, that happened after Blair left office anyway, Sainsbury stopped funding Laobur as he. Doesn’t agree with Eds policies, same as several unions don’t fund labour now,

    If Hodges has genuine concerns about Eds leadership he’s entitled to his decision, criticising Progress for not being Sexy, was pathetic,

    I’ve never been a reader of progress,and didnt back David for leader either n

  2. Rod says:

    I’m always struck by similarities between the Far Left and the Far Right, within Labour. Both rely on similar undemocratic forms of internal organisation. Both offer backward-looking, comfort-zone hugging perspectives. And both produce drearily plodding, mind-numbing and insomnia-curing magazines/newspapers/websites.

    They deserve each other. It’s no surprise to me that many who started out in one such group, end up in the another, supposedly opposite, group.

  3. Lord Sainsbury’s latest, and its review by Lord Adonis, join several other signs that Progress is relocating itself, if it has not already done so, within the mainstream of the Labour Party. For example, it is campaigning against the privatisation of the East Coast Main Line.

    All doubt about the position of Progress could and should be dispelled by affiliation to the Labour Party, after the manner of the Fabian Society.

    The same is true of the Labour Representation Committee. The LRC’s affiliates, which are by definition constitutionally committed to its aim of the election of a Labour Government, would thus be in a sort of indirect affiliation to the party.

    Including the FBU. Including the RMT, which with the equally LRC- affiliated ASLEF is campaigning against the privatisation of the East Coast Main Line.

    And including (extremely small, although highly committed) activist bodies with heritage names, but which already do not stand against Labour candidates for election.

    Or else they would be ineligible for LRC affiliation. Just as individual membership is open only to members of the Labour Party or of no party that contests elections. Like the Fabian Society.

  4. Johnreid says:

    Dvid, as much as I admire you, you know fall well that Progress doesn’t have a member ship organisation, rather than meeting which subscribers to its magazine can attend, as such it doesn’t get the chance to vote on NEC or leadership elections, like Fabians

    As for the LRC, individual members can be affiliated to various unions, and LRC members can then use thir subs to further it, as pointed out the RamT as a whole doesn’t give to labour,

    As far as I know Fabians can be liberal Dems ,Shirley Williams and bill Rogers still being members,

  5. Rod says:

    “signs that Progress is relocating itself,”

    In his book (Progressive Capitialism) Sainsbury sadly recognises that New Labour policies “… largely reflected the dominant neoliberal political economy of the time.”.

    I suppose once the Progress Tendency’s Politburo has elaborated the re-orientation new instructions will be issued to the ground troops, informing them what their future opinions will be.

  6. Johnreid, Progress certainly does have a membership, because I am in it. You can join from the website. It is very easy, and entirely above board. There is a small fee.

    I am also a member of the LRC, though not of any of its affiliates. Again, that is very easy to do.

    Let all doubt be dispelled when local MP, Ed Miliband, addressed at Doncaster railway station the rally inaugurating the joint campaign against East Coast Main Line privatisation.

    Joint between Progress, which has taken up this cause with some energy, and the Labour Representation Committee, to which the RMT is affiliated, as is the Labour-affiliated ASLEF.

    With Bob Crow not only on the platform but speaking from it at this year’s Durham Miners’ Gala (Durham, like Doncaster, is on the East Coat Main Line), the family reunion is obviously proceeding as well as the ejection of the cuckoos.

    Therefore, let Bob Crow be another speaker at this event. Along with Peter Hitchens, indicating that it is this campaign and others like it that have crossover appeal, reaching people of whom Tony Blair could never have dreamed even if he had wanted to.

  7. Rod says:

    David Lindsay: “the family reunion is obviously proceeding as well as the ejection of the cuckoos.”

    One can hardly Adam and Eve it! By Jove, it must only be a matter of time before Tony Blair resigns/is expelled from the Progress Tendency… ; )

  8. I doubt that he is in it. And he has never called himself a cuckoo. Unlike some…

  9. Nick says:

    “We are even invited to “print” the page and, we assume, tape it to our walls.”
    Like every other article on the website? Having a printer friendly option is pretty standard.

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