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. 

Getty Images.
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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.