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Labour Students no longer bothers to pretend it’s not just Progress’ youth wing

Last weekend (16-17th November 2013), the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) organised in Manchester their political weekend. Over the course of the weekend, the Blairite clique that dominates Labour Students ruthlessly reaffirmed their hegemony. But they were met with a surprising consensus for greater dialogue and plurality within the organisation and its events.

The weekend began with lunch, announcements and an overwhelming three hours of speakers and a panel. Unlike in previous years, where student-led workshops and policy forums encouraged dialogue and discussion among participants, the extent of engagement this year was limited to asking questions. For the price of £40 (plus transport), over 150 students had come to Manchester to be lectured at.

The panel was the epitome of what Labour Students is as an organisation. Co-hosted with Progress for its ‘Campaign for a Labour Majority’, the panel was made out to be the star event of the weekend. Before the panel started declaring the need for the Labour Party to endorse austerity (for the sake of ‘fiscal credibility’) or of public sector reform (i.e. privatisation), we had all to be briefed on the Godsend that is Progress.

Progress is “the New Labour pressure group which aims to promote a radical and progressive politics for the 21st century”. In other words, they are a militantly neo-Blairite faction within the Labour Party. Founded in 1994, they have recently taken to run slates in internal elections, as well as contesting selections. In spite of the impressive speakers they draw to their events and the monthly magazine they produce – courtesy of Lord Sainsbury’s yearly quarter-of-a-million donation, evidence shows that they have failed to achieve much success in internal party elections.

Every person in the room (except previously identified lefties) was offered free Progress magazines and membership forms to spare. As if this wasn’t enough, speaking from his position as chair of Labour Students, Callum Monro informed us that Ben Dilks (an employee of Progress who is also NOLS Vice-Chair for Events and Communication) had more freebies to give to anyone who would join. We can only wonder how many students were lured into Progress’ factional recruitment scheme.

But the worst was yet to come. On Sunday, the main political event was a panel on foreign policy. In it, former Political Director of the Office of Tony Blair, Matthew Doyle monopolised the discussion with rhetoric that was not only unapologetic of Iraq, but actively jingoistic. In what Mr Monro called the “political education” element to the weekend, Doyle created a false dichotomy presenting interventionism as a principled socialist view and non-interventionism as necessarily isolationist and misguided. The discomfort of the room was evident as a barrage of anti-War questions came in, with a contest ensuing of which side got the biggest and loudest applause.

The lack of plurality and the strictest Blairite orthodoxy that the organisers sought was being put into question. When William Tucker, a student from Warwick, asked in ‘Questions to Officers’ why the panels didn’t represent the broad spectrum of views in our Party, he was greeted with a thunder of applause, forcing the three Labour Student sabbaticals to admit the need to incorporate a more diverse set of views in the future.

However, they still insisted on repeating the mantra of how proud NOLS is in working closely with Progress. This was very possibly the most repeated statement of the weekend, and very much evident to anyone who wanted to listen. All throughout the weekend, Mr Dilks and Chair of Scottish Labour Students, Stephen Donnelly, bullied activists to join Progress. After dazzling them with freebies, they went round telling keen members than “you need to join Progress if you want to shape the organisation”.

In what is perhaps a desperate attempt to recruit more activists and swell up their ranks, inexperienced students (an overwhelming majority of those present said this was their first Political Weekend) are being told to join Progress or lose favour. But joining a faction shouldn’t be about fitting in. By giving Progress hacks license to intimidate students into joining, the National Executive of Labour Students did not meet the basic acid test of ‘safe space’ that is freedom of conscience.

It is evident to all that there is no description for today’s NOLS other than as a subsidiary of Progress. It is certainly a brilliant move by Progress. Their colonisation of Labour Students provides them with a front of impartiality and legitimacy. It perpetuates the notion that their right-wing ideas have any traction across our Party. However, to Labour Students, it is tragic. It doesn’t dignify the organisation to be so partial. It excludes thousands of student activists across the UK, who feel that NOLS doesn’t represent them at all.

The time has come to say ‘enough!’ and reclaim NOLS for Labour students. There is a silent majority across our campuses that believes that Labour Students is bigger and stronger when we are plural and democratic. Over the coming months, and in anticipation of Labour Students’ Conference in March, we must get organised and build the alternative. The power to change is in our hands.


  1. Craig Cheney says:

    You say ‘bullied’. In what way bullied?

  2. Josh says:

    Progress paranoia from the unrealistic, unelectable extreme left. Quite pathetic!

  3. Rod says:

    “interventionism as a principled socialist view and non-interventionism as necessarily isolationist and misguided.”

    Prioritising military invention – a belief that political violence can lead to a better world – places them hand in hand with other death cults such as Al Qaeda.

    Labour’s hard Right produced a flurry of this poison during their recent ‘let’s bomb Syria’ campaign.

    Yet when asked to explain how supporting Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria can be reconciled to Labour values they go very quiet.

    How about putting Blair on trail for betraying British armed forces by committing them to an unnecessary and counter-productive war? Now that would be more consistent with Labour values.

  4. Matty says:

    “you need to join Progress if you want to shape the organisation”.
    Or in other words, if you want a career in politics then you better be with us. Blatant careerism has existed in NOLS for at least 25 years now. I’m sure that Hopi Sen would agree.

  5. John Reid says:

    What a load of rubbish Matty, josh hits the nail on the head,

  6. Hi. I actually went to this conference and found that I was marginalized and at times treated with contempt by certain people (Although the vast majority were decent.) This was probably because of my slightly left-wing views, which were at odds with the blairite faction that dominated the conference. However, I just think that if you think that Progress is such a bad organization, and that it does not represent your views, why not join it and change it from the inside? Granted, Progress does seem to be a front for militant Blairitism….But we can change that if we get involved! Just join, and if more and more left wingers join, then it will truly be an organization that represents everyone’s views, not just a certain faction or group within the party. We all need to grow up and realize that our activities are harming the party- I for one do NOT want to see a return to the Blair-Brown years- When the Centre fought and bickered with the left. We need to be a United, ONE NATION Labour Party, like Ed Miliband has been saying all along…otherwise the voters will punish us for our disunity.

  7. Again, I neither oppose Progress nor support them. I just think those criticizing them without taking action need to grow a pair.

  8. Chris says:

    I don’t think they’ve been called NOLS for years.

    Student politics is a joke anyway, I always hated it. I hope we succeed in driving the Progressites from the party. Fuck their version of “electability”. I’d rather lose an election than win on their terms.

  9. Rod says:

    Matty: ” if you want a career in politics then you better be with us [Progress]”

    That’s sound advice. If I wanted to become a Labour MP I’d regard Progress membership as an essential first step.

    Indeed, join up and then start writing simplistic articles for a hard right Labour blog – just to show that you’re not clever enough to think for yourself and can therefore be relied upon to unthinkingly parrot the Progress line.

    Of course, it’s not that Progress’ proposals are breathtakingly admirable or that the organisation is not intellectually bankrupt. The advantage conferred by membership is that they’re well organised, well-connected and influential – in today’s befuddled Labour Party that counts for a lot.

    They certainly share many characteristics with the Trot entryists of an earlier era.

  10. Tess Nauojde says:

    What a lazy and poorly written article.

    Bullied?? I met both Stephen and Ben and they were lovely, they didn’t force me to join anything and were very sweet.

    I don’t understand this article. Have you seen what most youth movements outside the UK are like? No elections, no discussion. At Political weekend I found openess to both. I felt inspired by Mr. Munro and excited to help Labour win.

    All this whining just sounds like typical complacent rich-kid talk.

    And then i read the comments:

    ‘Fuck their version of “electability”. I’d rather lose an election than win on their terms.’

    Thank God our 2015 strategy isn’t in your hands, because if it were, Cameron, Osborne and Gove’s best friend isn’t Progress, it’s your readers.

  11. Joe says:

    Nobody has done more to turn off new people trying to get involved than the cliquey brigade of laddish, tweed-wearing ‘lefties’ that come to these events to be miserable and stir things up.

    I saw them all weekend, loud, arrogant, zero-inclusive, narrow minded blokes, usually found smoking a pipe or drinking real ale (which looks so fake btw – stop pretending to be miners! Real miners won’t appreciate being stereotyped I bet).

    Shape the organisation by being nice to people and winning them over? Not by being the stand-in-the-corner lads that moan all the time.

  12. James Martin says:

    I look back on my involvement with NOLS with some nostalgia. At the time at my university we were heavily involved in fighting the Poll Tax, linking with local communities and helping to pay for transport to demos. We had speakers like Walter Wolfgang who not only gave a great anti-war message, but one with history and knowledge behind it. We got involved with the local trades council and supported strikes actively. We also regularly took the piss out of our useless national leaders (Stephen Twigg, who has continued to remain utterly useless ever since).

    Now when you look at the organisation it is just a vetting scam for potential parachute candidates into safe seats who will do as they are told. And that is even more of a tragedy since the implosion of the SWP’s SWSS over the mishandled rape allegations has, whatever you think of the SWP, left a huge vacuum in terms of left politics in the NUS. Students deserve a lot better, although it is encouraging to see the growth of groups like Marxist Students linked to Socialist Appeal.

  13. Rod says:

    Mohammed: “why not join it [Progress] and change it from the inside?”

    That could work if Prpgress was a democratic organisation. Progress is constituted as private company with a board of directors etc.

    You might get invited to the top table if you bunged in £250,000 or so, but even then you would most likely be over-ruled if you proposed a range of sensible policies.

  14. JM says:

    As if the SWP had anything to do with left voices in NUS beyond a few posh lads in kaffeyirs shouting at women. There are plenty left voices in the student movement that never felt the need to align with the cult of Callincos.

    If you feel a left voice is lacking, organise. You won’t ‘defeat’ Progress (if that’s your aim) with snipe pieces at NOLS members. Articulate your political vision and bring people along with you. I have also met many of the posh lads with pipes sneering at my (also left) politics at these sorts of events which hardly inspires collectivism.

  15. Jon says:

    I was there and this article is 100% accurate.
    Surely even if these people can’t bring themselves to apologise for Iraq, surely they can just shut up about it? To positively celebrate it is disgusting and insulting to all the innocent people who died.

    Craig and Tess:
    How dare you question Michael’s assertion that he was bullied? Maybe the people didn’t realise they were bullying him and others, but it is up to the people getting bullied to say how they feel, not the alleged bully, and often bullies only realize they are doing wrong by the victim being brave enough to speak out like Michael has here.

  16. Alex says:

    This is a bizarre distortion of the event peddled by a fundamentally opposed few who want nothing more than to decry everything Labour Students, Progress and the “bogey man blairites” do.

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    Some comments have infringed this policy. Any future comments making unsubstantiated personal attacks will be removed (as may some of the above comments, if we feel they’re provoking unpleasant debate).

  18. Craig Cheney says:

    I wasn’t questioning his assertion any more than asking how he was bullied, being genuinely interested in the answer. It’s a prerty strong word to use and I was interested to understand the form of this bullying.

    How dare you question my right to question 😉

  19. Rod says:

    “Their [Progress] colonisation of Labour Students provides them with a front of impartiality and legitimacy.”

    They work exactly in the same way within the Labour Party.

    If Progress was a stand alone party, placing it’s own policies, undisguised, before the electorate they’d be finishing somewhere below the Elvis Loves Pets party.

    Progress favours military intervention. Progress has argued for the privatisation of the NHS. And on their website, fearful of upsetting the vested interests Miliband wants to challenge, Progress has called for a “scallops and celeriac purée offensive” in the City of London.

    I’d just love to see them take those policies to the doorstep. But they know the score – hence the use of the Labour Party as cover.

  20. Peter Willsman says:

    Rod,we need comrades like you in the LP to fight back against Progress and their Sainsbury millions.Progress want you outside the Party,so why do what they want?!!Progress have MPs and PPCs in numbers way beyond their strength in the Party.They use their money and empty promises to lead decent and trusting members up the garden.Only the presence of Rod-types has any chance of averting this.

  21. John Reid says:

    Peter Wilsman ,where’s your proof progress want to get rid of the left, as progress are the only people to win labour an election in the last 39 years, they of all people know about getting people in, it’s the left and their lies, that try to oust the right of the party,

  22. Ric Euteneuer says:

    ‘Twas ever thus.

    NOLS and the variety of factions that have run or have had a major involvement in it have, since ‘Operation Icepick’ been run as a centre-right fiefdom. Progress are just another in this long line, although the abuse of process that Progress undertook to treat the entire weekend as an extended recruiting session does seem to plumb new depths.

    If Progress – in existence since 1994 are so successful at winning elections – why did we lose the general in 2010 (and a wide variety of locals and Euros leading up to it) ? Our lack of adherance to (cough) ‘market based solutions’ and ‘fiscal austerity’ perhaps ?

    For all their anti-leftism, they are an (undemocratic) faction (albeit a very well funded and well-linked one) with a lot in common organisationally, if not politicially with far left groups, and ought to be treated as such. They hate debate – they hate their policies being examined – they operate in ‘Readers’ Groups’ (sound familiar, anyone?). Take the argument to them , challenge them at every juncture. Their well placed supporters up and down the country in CLPs and regions will make sure that only Progress or Progress-sympathetic speakers and guests will be invited to speak to them. They need to be taken to task.

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