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. 

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.