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 are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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