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  1. Politics
13 June 2012updated 05 Oct 2023 8:28am

The campaign against Progress spells pure danger for Labour

The very fact that unions discuss the purging of "Blairites" should be cause for alarm.

By Rafael Behr

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that certain people on the left of the Labour party and in the trade union movement do not like Tony Blair. They disapprove of a wide range of policies that might, exploiting the elasticity of the term, be described as Blairite. Candidates in elections on whom that same label might be pinned are likewise shunned by some.

That is a normal feature of politics. It is normal too, on the fringes of any movement, for people to believe that their leaders or former leaders have in some sense betrayed the ideals of the party and ought to be repudiated as traitors. Certain hard line Eurosceptic Tories currently feel that way about David Cameron. I don’t think it is a very healthy or attractive feature of politics, but it is probably unavoidable.

It is this tendency that is feeding the campaign against Progress, a self-described “New Labour” pressure group. It has its own independent funding but draws its membership (including many senior shadow cabinet figures) from the Labour party. In February this year, an anonymous dossier was sent to constituency Labour party secretaries purporting to be “an investigation into the constitution, structure, activities and funding of Progress. (A copy is here; Progress’s rebuttal is here.)

Michael Meacher MP wrote a piece for The Staggers endorsing the attack here. Robert Philpot, Progress director, responded, also on The Staggers, here.

Broadly speaking, the charge is that Progress is a shadowy organisation, a secretive phalanx of right-wingers with corporate backing who have infiltrated the party with a view to steering it away from the path of left virtue. The alternative view is that it is an organisation that lobbies within the party for views and policy ideas – some of which might be great, some of which might be bonkers, much of which contributed to Labour’s most successful time in British politics. If, that is, being in power is considered a success.

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But the key question isn’t whether Progress is right about some things or indeed anything. It is whether or not it has the right to exist within the Labour party.

At this week’s annual congress of the GMB union there were a couple on interventions attacking Progress. The idea was mooted of bringing changes to Labour party rules effectively killing the organisation. People in Progress itself believe there is similar agitation in other large unions. The resources and data required to compile and send out the February dossier suggest union involvement.

So what is it all about? Obviously there is ideology. People don’t like Blairites and want them to go away. I have heard it said by a few people on the Labour left that the Blairites should be expelled from the party, drawing an equivalence with Militant in the 1980s. I find the comparison pretty wild, but then extreme metaphors are not unusual in politics (or journalism).

But there is another factor involved, which is the internal pressure within the union movement to explain why the backing of Ed Miliband for the leadership has not yielded changes to the party that were implicitly promised. It is a kind of compliment really: Ed has not been as red as advertised, by erstwhile friends and enemies alike. He and Ed Balls have accepted the need to make some public sector cuts. They are committed to reducing the deficit and – most offensive from the union point of view – they recognise the necessity of the public sector pay freeze.

This was never in the union plan. The convenient explanation for the left is that Miliband has somehow been captured by Blairites – that the zombie tendency of the old regime is preventing him from carrying the sacred flame as bestowed by the bloc vote. The natural solution: smash the zombies.

The reality is that self-declared “Blairites” are marginalised in the shadow cabinet, do not have the leader’s ear and generally wander around looking like some of the most forlorn and lonely people in Westminster. (So yes, there is a haunted/zombie contingent, but not a very powerful one.)

But even that is a distraction. It hardly matters whether or not Blairite ideas are influencing Miliband or whether those ideas are good or bad. What matters is whether the Labour party and the wider labour movement – the unions in other words – can tolerate dissenting voices. It is all about control: who runs the machine, who has the resources to print leaflets and fund local campaigns, who decides which candidates get selected in safe seats. Progress is a player in that game, but a minnow compared to the GMB or Unite.

Ultimately, even people who hate Blair, his works and his political descendents should see that their battle is better won by argument and conviction than institutional machination. It ought to be obvious that a campaign to close down Progress hands a stupendous opportunity to enemies of the Labour party. As a rule for Labour, a move that has Tories punching the air in delight should give pause for thought.

What does mobilising against Progress say – or, at the very least, how is it certain to be interpreted? It looks as if Labour is belatedly warming up for one of those vicious internecine wars for which it is famed, the ones that kept it out of power for a generation and the avoidance of which has been one of Ed Miliband’s biggest achievements to date. It looks as if some people on the left are so consumed by the pursuit of ideological purity that they despise the very notion of compromise, including compromise with the electorate. It looks as if the game that matters most of all is securing mastery of the internal machine not seeking a mandate to run the country. At worst, it plays to every negative stereotype of the unreconstructed left: wedded to monolithic control (achieved by subterfuge and bullying), suspicious of dissent, smelling treason everywhere and believing in the restorative effects of the purge.

As I said, maybe that is just a normal aspect of politics. But it is not a very appealing one. A dispassionate observer might think energies on the left would be better spent finding new supporters instead of whittling down the ranks of existing ones.

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