Progress has become a party within a party

The undemocratic Blairite group must be called to account by Labour.

When does a political campaigning body cross the red line of legitimacy and become a party within a party, and then what should be done about it? Detailed recent investigations have raised this question about the role of the Blairite Progress organisation within the Labour Party. But the issue raises much wider matters about corporate involvement in modern politics involving all parties, and as such urgently requires attention.

Progress was first set up as a company limited by guarantee in 1994 and the first director was Derek Draper, then a researcher for Peter Mandelson. It publishes no details of any membership and is controlled by the directors of the company. However it has never released its register of guarantor members, nor its memorandum and articles of association, nor details of its corporate structure. Given this secrecy, should such a private company be operating as a membership organisation inside a political party?

Now this might not matter too much if it was an insignificant body on the outer fringes of politics. But it isn't - it aspires to dominate the Labour Party at the centre - and it has access to huge funding to help it achieve its purpose, out of all proportion to that available to any other such body. It has received just under £3 millions to date in donations over £7,500 (the threshold set by the Electoral Commission). No less than 95 per cent of this has come from a single source - David Sainsbury, who previously funded the Labour Party until Ed Miliband won the leadership, when he promptly pulled out and switched to Progress. Interestingly, donations from the second largest donor to Progress, Michael Montague, totalling £875,000, were made at least two years after his death via a trust whose objectives and trustees are unknown.

Progress has thus raised more money than the Green Party, Scottish Labour or Plaid Cymru. It has raised hugely more than any members' association in the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and 122 times more than the next highest in Labour. Clearly Progress is an organisation with the funding and staffing of a minor political party, except that it is operating inside the Labour Party. Yet despite the parlous state of Labour's finances, it has contributed none of the enormous funds it has raised to assist the party it seeks to lead by training parliamentary candidates and running its own candidates for the leadership, London mayoralty and the NEC.

Again, if its objectives were identical to Labour's, this might be easier to understand. Whilst this may have been true for its first decade to 2006 - Tony Blair required the new organisation to be "centred round the leader" - it flipped thereafter into becoming a platform for New Labour supporters against the opposing Brownite faction. After the 2010 election it finally morphed from a political education trust into a fully-fledged factional body self-identifying with New Labour, training its own supporters for parliamentary selections, and complete with its own ideology, policies, candidates and campaigns - a range of key functions taken on by no other organisation within Labour. Moreover this transformation was achieved without any internal democratic mandate. Thus, unlike in its original days when unquestioning loyalty to the leader was the dominant theme, the opposite is now true - that support for the leader is now measured in accordance with how far the leader is supportive of Progress's own distinct ideology.

So what needs to be done? The last time Labour faced an organisation operating as a party within a party was in the struggle against the Militant Tendency in the 1980s. At that time the National Executive Committee resolved to set up a register of groups to be recognised and allowed to operate within the party. Revealingly the terms of eligibility included the requirement that groups had to be open and democratic, and should not be allowed to operate their own internal discipline. Progress is of course an utterly different animal from the Militant Tendency, but the same principles of democratic governance need to apply.

The intrusion of corporate funding into modern politics on a dominant scale, which has long been the case, is now being reinforced by novel operating structures carefully crafted to fulfil the minimum legal requirements necessary, but drawn up also to maximise the opportunities for the exercise of power and influence as a self-standing organisation within an existing political party. Progress is a classic example of this tendency. It has no constitutional structure or apparent membership rights, there are obvious questions about how its decisions on policy and finance are made, it is unclear how the leading appointments were made in the absence of democratic elections or indeed what powers they exercise, and it recruits and trains potential parliamentary candidates that fit its own ideological mould to the exclusion of the broad spectrum that had always previously characterised the Labour Party.

If Progress is to remain within the Labour Party, clearly new rules are urgently needed to bring its fund-raising, governance and political activities wholly in line with Labour's principles. The next NEC meeting is on 20 March.

Michael Meacher is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

Editor's note: Progress has previously responded to Michael Meacher's allegations here.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.