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The Blairites: strong, arrogant and oblivious to the wishes of Labour members

kim blair ilThere is no doubt that the Blairites have had a rough few years.

As they see it, Brown, the Pretender who hated the Great Leader, undermined him and forced him out. No sooner had the usurper stolen the Great Leader’s job, than he demonstrated that he wasn’t capable of doing it himself, didn’t really believe in ‘reforming’ public services, and was against modernisation. Then he very nearly managed to hang on in government when he deserved not only to lose but to be humiliated, in preparation for the great revival.

The Brown years never dented the Blairites’ sense of entitlement to run the Labour Party as the Great Leader would wish. They never doubted that the Great Successor would win the leadership, seeing off the treacherous brother who had learnt his perfidious ways in the court of the Pretender.

And then their world fell apart. The end of New Labour. ‘Apologies’ for New Labour. Shifting the party away from ‘the centre ground’. Allowing unions and lefties to think they might actually be allowed some influence. The departure of the Great Successor, leaving them leaderless. Unsettled by the severity of the economic crisis and lacking any ideological compass to guide them.

Before we continue, we need to reflect on who we mean by the Blairites. Some on the left appear to think of the Labour right as a homogenous group of neoThatcherites. Actually, it is just as divided and ideologically diverse as the left.

Although the rows between the Blairite and Brownite camps were, in the words of the Independent’s Steve Richards, “apolitical rows for the depoliticized decade”, the political divisions have become more visible.

Most of the Labour Right amongst the membership can be described as social democrats. Even in their leaders, though there are clearly elements of continuity with Thatcher’s neo-liberalism, there is rather more continuity with traditional Labour revisionism. Blair himself, however, is, in more of Steve Richard’s words, “a social and economic liberal, in many ways closer to the Conservatives, leading a centre-left party that he knew was in a different place from him.”

So what are the Blairites now that there are now Brownites? Truthfully they are hard to define. It easiest to do so in comparison with the traditional right of the party, social democrats who see themselves in the Crosland tradition, who support a significant role for the state, equality & redistribution, who support trade unions and their role within the party, and who recognise class as a key determinant of inequality. The traditional right are closer to Labour First than Progress.

Labour First includes people whose politics may be well to the right such as John Spellar, Warley MP since 1992 and key right-wing union fixer since the 1970s, as well as others such as Tom Watson now seen as centrist. All are more loyal to Ed Miliband than Progress and unsentimental  about Blair. The Blairites, including include the leaders of Progress and several members of the Shadow Cabinet, prefer to remain ideology-lite. They are practitioners of triangulation, spin and party discipline, hostile to the state and still enamoured of the market in spite of its recent colossal failures. Their frequent warnings about Labour’s comfort zones indicate how much further to the right are their own. But even Progress activists are people with a range of views, and the political day trippers who frequent their conferences even more so.

When the Blairites finally recovered from the shock of David Miliband’s defeat, they could not agree on a strategy. They were as uncertain as the Left how far Ed Miliband wished to move away from New Labour. By the end of 2011, some were willing to back Balls against him. But after a month of almost daily sniping from Murphy, Twigg, Byrne and others in January 2012 (and in spite of Ed Balls’s support for a public sector pay freeze designed to solidify his backing from the Blairites and not cleared with the Leader), others were unwilling to take the plunge. Whether it was because they couldn’t stomach Balls, or because too many MPs who’d voted for both Balls and David Miliband were now loyal to his brother, the Blairites agreed to lay off the leader and the sniping stopped.

The Spring of 2012 was their low point. Their contempt for the choice of Leader and members’ desire to bury New Labour brought to a head the opposition of leading trade unionists, and not only from the left. In February a dossier called simply A Report into the constitution, structure, activities and funding of Progress was circulated to all CLPs. It argued Progress was a party-within-a-party, pursuing policy and party organisation agendas, as well as “openly supporting candidates in parliamentary selections”.

The following month the Yorkshire regional TUC conference on 3 March, for example, passed unanimously a GMB motion supported by Wendy Nichols of Unison, a member of Labour’s NEC, calling on unions “to take all practical steps to oppose the organisational and ideological aims of ‘Progress’ ”. In June, the GMB Congress passed a motion along similar lines, with strong support from general secretary, Paul Kenny.

This drove Progress onto the defensive. Shadow Cabinet member, Ivan Lewis, called on the party to “encourage plurality. No individual or section of the party has a monopoly of wisdom.” Progress Director, Robert Philpot, stressed that Labour was “stronger for being a broad church, both organisationally and ideologically. Let’s keep it that way.” Pluralism and inclusiveness had not previously been high amongst the tenets of Blairism. They even went out of their way to stress the importance of trade unionism.

The conversion, of course, was not convincing. At their summer conference in 2012, in a breakout session entitled “what should a modernized link look like”, the answer seemed to be “just like USDAW and Community”, only with a political fund that is “opt-in” rather than “opt-out”, consulted but with little direct say over Labour Party policy. Progress did make superficial changes in their structure to provide some appearance of democracy and transparency about funding, designed to avoid being forced to make changes by the party. However, a rule change submitted by ASLEF last year, is still likely to be moved this year. Although it makes no direct reference to Progress, as well as requiring “acceptable standards of democracy, governance and transparency”, it would have the effect of requiring Progress to donate half of their future income from Lord Sainsbury (over £1.8m to date) to the party.

That may well explain the recent rise in Progress attacks on trade union influence in the party, starting with an interview with “Militant moderate” Alan Johnson in their February magazine. His working class roots and trade union background made him their ideal mouthpiece with the claim that trade unions are in danger of becoming “irrelevant” and “cannot connect to a whole swath of the workforce that thinks they died out with the ark”. And his plea for the drive to increase working-class representation in parliament not be “left to a small clique in the affiliated unions who want to get the people who mirror their views into parliament“. And calls on the unions to “reduce their power within the Labour party.”

Certainly, it is not the fear that they are losing out in the parliamentary selections that has driven Progress to this. Their success winning a clear majority of this round of selections in winnable seats reflects a growing strength and confidence, buoyed by the many concessions Ed Miliband has made to them over policy. This is a planned attack that reflects their underlying and longstanding hostility to trade unions and their desire to destroy all influence they have within the party.

At their most recent summer conference, Peter Mandelson did the dirty work, claiming that trade unions wield an “absolutely disgraceful” influence over the selection of parliamentary candidates which risks undermining the party’s campaign for a “new politics” in Britain. “Too many selection processes…. are in the hands of one union at worst or a couple at best,” he argued. He also described union voting strength at conference as “disgraceful” — and this in answer to a question inviting him to outline what united Progress and Unite! Answer – nothing.

More recently, he has again attacked the role of unions in influencing parliamentary selections, focusing on the contest to replace the disgraced Eric Joyce, himself parachuted by the Blairite machine into the Falkirk seat to displace left MP, Dennis Canavan. His attack, he claims, isn’t on trade unions who “should, of course, participate in parliamentary selection processes” but on the “being allowed to pay en bloc to recruit en masse their members to the party… like some modern-day block vote for trade union general secretaries to wield in London.

He is utterly disingenuous. What he opposes is any kind of collective influence for trade unions in the party they founded. The Blairites have chosen to attack over Falkirk because they believe they can smear and discredit Unite even though no rules appear to have been broken.

The Blairites are strong, arrogant and oblivious to the social democratic aims of most party members never mind the desire of most trade unionists for a Labour Party that once again voices their aspirations. This year will see a vital struggle between Progress and the unions, and especially Unite. We know whose side we’re on.

This article first appeared in the current issue of the original Labour Briefing

8 Comments

  1. Rachel says:

    “Certainly, it is not the fear that they are losing out in the parliamentary selections that has driven Progress to this. Their success winning a clear majority of this round of selections in winnable seats reflects a growing strength and confidence, buoyed by the many concessions Ed Miliband has made to them over policy.”

    If you’re going to claim that Progress have won a majority of recent selections then you should name names – and constituencies. Just because a candidate isn’t backed by TULO *doesn’t* mean they have the active backing of Progress. The unsuccessful non-TULO candidate in Lancaster & Fleetwood has been a UNISON activist for nearly a decade. Even many local trade unionists were confused as to why she hadn’t got the TULO nomination.

  2. Syzygy says:

    Very timely explanation of the latest spate of Ed Miliband undermining. Mandelson et al really would rather see the Tories re-elected than lose control of the LP.

  3. Rod says:

    “Their [Progress] success winning a clear majority of this round of selections in winnable seats reflects a growing strength and confidence, buoyed by the many concessions Ed Miliband has made to them over policy.”

    So it could well be game over.

    We all know where the Collin’s review will point – and how the top secret contents of the Falkirk report will be used remorselessly to drive Spring Conference to an irresistible anti-Trade Union conclusion.

    All this will be done not in time for the general election but, more importantly for Progress, in time for the leadership election that will follow a Labour defeat – all obstacles preventing a Blairite takeover will have finally been removed.

    If this sequence of events is to be avoided LP members and the Unions are going to have to box very cleverly and box hard. It certainly looks as if Progress have won round one.

  4. Rob the cripple says:

    Progress is in power Blair is back, the one issue in the ointment is simple, the Tories are on a winner , the economy is on the up, the news is, so is the EU so slowly the recovery will start.

    The 2015 election I suspect will be the Tories it’s looking more and more like Labour has nothing to offer Miliband is now under control.

    The real issue is between 2015 and 2020 will see wages increase as the economy gets better Immigration will be controlled and the Tories will sit back and state we have done it.

    2020 election why would you vote in New Labour when the real thing is in power and actually not doing to bad.

    Next think you know Labour is looking at the one thing it said can never happen again, three four terms out of power.

    Progress will die a death Blair will be long gone, and you will have a Labour party possibly looking at five six terms out of power.

    The working class will be long gone as they dream of being middle class well that what New Labour hoped.

  5. James Martin says:

    One of the big underlaying factors here that interlinks to the lack of ‘politics’ among the ‘new right’ is that unlike the old labour right these people have mostly never done a proper job in their lives. Straight from uni to a policy ‘job’ and then to an MP. The other advantage the old right wing had was that up to the 1980s many of them had seen active service and so had a far more cautious attitude to foreign interventions (wheras of course a 1960s Blair would have been enthusiatically calling for us to get involved in Vietnam).

    But of course isn’t this Milliband’s weakness too? Never done a proper job in his life, and it shows. He very clearly doesn’t understand trade unions because he has never needed to be a member of one for the reasons the rest of us need protection from bad bosses, poor pay and unsafe working environments.

    And it is that central weakness (that his brother treated as a strength) that allows him to play the role of the useful idiot to those who are once again trying to complete ‘the project’.

  6. RedShift says:

    @Rachel

    The successful TULO-backed candidate in Lancaster & Fleetwood, has a very good track record as a friend of the trade unions. She is also a Unite rep. She also (unlike your preferred candidate) has good local links with the seat

    Why exactly do you assume that your preferred candidate had the right to TULO backing against another candidate with a strong trade union background?

  7. David Melvin says:

    That is fair comment James. With a handful of noteable of exceptions we have a PLP comprised of MP’s appointed during the Blair years who can only read from an autocue. I don’t watch Question Time because you can’t tell the Con-Dem spokesperson from the Labour front bench spokesperson and as for watching or listening to Ed Miliband no chance!

  8. John p Reid says:

    You missed out the bit about trying to oust progress magazine, unite buying influence in Falkirk, and only being a couple of points ahead in the opinion polls,

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