Labour must not return to factional warfare

One of Labour's great achievements under Ed Miliband has been to encourage an open and transparent debate about our future while avoiding the kind of destructive infighting which characterised the party's behaviour the last time we lost office in 1979.

I'm really proud of the many great things the government in which Michael Meacher served for six years under Tony Blair did to rebuild our public services, fight poverty and make Britain a fairer, more equal country.

That is why I find it so disappointing that Michael has chosen to align himself with the small hard left minority of the party that seem intent on attacking Progress and reigniting the kind of divisive, factional warfare which, as Michael well knows, was so damaging to Labour in the early 1980s.

We really cannot return to the days where conversations within the Labour party become more important than our conversations with the electorate. I cannot, however, allow the criticisms of Progress to go unanswered. In his piece, Michael refers to "detailed recent investigations" into the organisation. I am afraid he is being rather coy here. The document to which Michael links was, in fact, an anonymous dossier posted to constituency party secretaries and councillors at their home addresses over recent weeks.

It is a great shame that time and money which could have been used attacking the Tories and helping Labour to develop an election-winning agenda was instead deployed producing and mailing a document which contains multiple inaccuracies and gross misrepresentations.

But equally disappointing is the fact that the author of that document chose to hide behind a cloak of anonymity and that Michael decided to repeat charges which Progress had already comprehensively answered.

One of the most refreshing things about Ed's leadership of the party has been his total intolerance of the kind of anonymous briefings which proved so damaging to Labour during our last years in government. We must not allow such tactics to resume.

Another hallmark of Ed's leadership which I hoped Michael would have joined the rest of the party in welcoming is the encouragement of pluralism and free and open debate within Labour's ranks. There are many points of view within the party with which I profoundly disagree. However, I have always believed that, as a party, we are strengthened by all those who are genuinely committed to the election of a future Labour government having their say. That's why I welcome Compass's place within the party and why we have held joint events with them and co-operated where we have common goals.

In my experience, playing the ball and not the man is always preferable in politics. I would, therefore, encourage Progress's critics to join us in a comradely debate about ideas, rather than trying to delegitimise those with whom they disagree. It is a shame, therefore, that there is not one mention in Michael's piece of The Purple Book, described by the Guardian as "the first concerted attempt to set out a new agenda for Labour", which Progress published last year.

I notice, too, that Michael appears determined to suggest that Progress is somehow antipathetic to the leadership of the party. This is a somewhat strange charge to make of an organisation of which Ed was, until the general election, a vice chair and which will welcome him as the keynote speaker at its annual conference for the second year running this May. More broadly, I'm really pleased that already this year we have had members of the shadow cabinet like Rachel Reeves, Douglas Alexander, Chuka Umunna, Liam Byrne, Jon Trickett, Ivan Lewis, Sadiq Khan, Stewart Wood, Liz Kendall and Peter Hain, speaking at the events Progress has been organising to debate the new centre-ground that Ed described at conference last September.

I am grateful that, despite the strenuous efforts of some to paint Progress as a "party within a party", Michael recognises the utter ridiculousness of comparisons with Militant. I hope, too, that on reflection he will see that it is Progress's opponents, with their intolerance of views with which they disagree, continual questioning of people's motives and apparent desire to collapse Labour's big tent, who are the real heirs to Militant.

As for Progress, we will not be distracted from our task, which is to work flat out to secure a Labour victory under Ed Miliband's leadership at the next general election. We will contribute ideas to Labour's policy debates - some will no doubt be accepted, while others will not. However, Progress is not simply a magazine. It is also a campaigning organisation. So we will continue to organise campaign sessions for Labour up and down the country. Labour is stronger for being a broad church, both organisationally and ideologically. Let's keep it that way.

Robert Philpot is director of Progress

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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