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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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland