The GMB's attack on Progress is an attack on pluralism

I'm no fan of Progress but Labour needs to open up, not close in.

If you have been paying attention this week, you might have just noticed that the GMB union has "gone to the mattresses" with Progress. You could be forgiven for not knowing that Progress is a small but well-funded Blairite pressure group and that GMB stands for General, Municipal and Boilermaker. Anyway, the GMB wants Progress banned from Labour for being what it is: well-funded and Blairite. 

So the essay question is "who cares and why?"  Well me for one, and I’m the chair of a so-called rival group to Progress – Compass.  If Progress are banned then the path is that bit clearer for more left-wing organisations like Compass.  But Progress mustn’t be banned. They have as much right as anyone else to their views and their commitment and resources to express them.

Sure, it rankles that they get generous funding from David Sainsbury. But at least he puts his money where his mouth is. To be honest, I wish there were more rich people on the left willing to back new ideas and organisations.  There must be more than Sainsbury?

And I’m no fan of Progress. They act as if New Labour was in no way responsible for the mess we are in and have little or nothing to say about capitalism or the environment. Lenin said "the victory of ideas needs organising". But with Progress it's too much organising and too few ideas. Too much of their emphasis is on winning slates and selections so that mostly things can stay the same. But that’s up to them. The job is to come up with better ideas and better ways of doing things.

And that better way can’t be based on organisational fixes like this one. Means always shape ends. The search for a good society has to be open, democratic and pluralistic – because that is exactly what a good society looks like. If the left ban the right now, what happens when the right are back in power? And anyway, people in and around Labour are big enough and clever enough to work out for themselves whether they want to listen to Progress, the GMB, Compass, the New Statesman or not.  Let's get real – in a world of Facebook and tweets where we all have multiple identities and allegiances the idea that people can or will follow a single line is being consigned with every tap of the keyboard to the dustbin of history.

Labour needs to open up, not close in. It needs to be humble, working alongside others on the issues that matter - opposing the harshest cuts, helping the public sector to serve those whom it is there for, helping community activists, and eventually replacing the Tories to rebuild and transform Britain. In search of good ideas, experiences of success and the necessary alliances to take power and not just office, Labour needs to remain open to voices from its left and from its right, inside and outside the party. The New Labour years showed that failing to build alliances and being narrow and enclosed might win some good headlines, but did not build a deep and powerful long-term sustainable coalition in the nation. Progress were part of that top-down culture and should learn from its shortcomings. The GMB were in part victims of it – and should also learn from their experience. The future won't be fixed by a few, it will be negotiated by all of us. We need to build on diversity and embrace difference as a strength.

The final thing to remember as the dust settles on this local Labour difficulty is that it might not be a competition but the left is winning. Ed Miliband, slowly, maybe painfully slowly, is getting bolder and brighter.  Witness his speech on Saturday which said some none too dull things about a more equal society, breaking up the Murdoch empire and believing in an ethic that says there is more to life than the bottom line.  Meanwhile, Jon Cruddas a free and radical thinker is now in charge of Labour’s policy review. Now swallows and summers and all that but just maybe the tectonic plates of Labour are gradually shifting.

Which on this one makes the GMB a bit like Dick Dastardly in Wacky Races. Remember that Dick and his side-kick Muttley would race ahead of the pack and, just before the finish line, set up some fiendish trap to stop the other racers.  It would always back-fire and they would always come last. The GMB have a heap of stuff to offer about industrial democracy and how to improve the lives of working people. More than enough to worry about, without concerning themselves with a small group that has no real vision and is running out of ideas and reasons to exist other than to cling on to power within Labour. And no amount of funding from David Sainsbury will change that.

Peter Mandelson warned that efforts to ban the Progress pressure group would lead Labour up a "pretty blind alley". Photograph

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.