If you have been paying attention this week, you might have just noticed that the GMB union has “gone to the mattresses” with Progress. You could be forgiven for not knowing that Progress is a small but well-funded Blairite pressure group and that GMB stands for General, Municipal and Boilermaker. Anyway, the GMB wants Progress banned from Labour for being what it is: well-funded and Blairite.
So the essay question is “who cares and why?” Well me for one, and I’m the chair of a so-called rival group to Progress – Compass. If Progress are banned then the path is that bit clearer for more left-wing organisations like Compass. But Progress mustn’t be banned. They have as much right as anyone else to their views and their commitment and resources to express them.
Sure, it rankles that they get generous funding from David Sainsbury. But at least he puts his money where his mouth is. To be honest, I wish there were more rich people on the left willing to back new ideas and organisations. There must be more than Sainsbury?
And I’m no fan of Progress. They act as if New Labour was in no way responsible for the mess we are in and have little or nothing to say about capitalism or the environment. Lenin said “the victory of ideas needs organising”. But with Progress it’s too much organising and too few ideas. Too much of their emphasis is on winning slates and selections so that mostly things can stay the same. But that’s up to them. The job is to come up with better ideas and better ways of doing things.
And that better way can’t be based on organisational fixes like this one. Means always shape ends. The search for a good society has to be open, democratic and pluralistic – because that is exactly what a good society looks like. If the left ban the right now, what happens when the right are back in power? And anyway, people in and around Labour are big enough and clever enough to work out for themselves whether they want to listen to Progress, the GMB, Compass, the New Statesman or not. Let’s get real – in a world of Facebook and tweets where we all have multiple identities and allegiances the idea that people can or will follow a single line is being consigned with every tap of the keyboard to the dustbin of history.
Labour needs to open up, not close in. It needs to be humble, working alongside others on the issues that matter – opposing the harshest cuts, helping the public sector to serve those whom it is there for, helping community activists, and eventually replacing the Tories to rebuild and transform Britain. In search of good ideas, experiences of success and the necessary alliances to take power and not just office, Labour needs to remain open to voices from its left and from its right, inside and outside the party. The New Labour years showed that failing to build alliances and being narrow and enclosed might win some good headlines, but did not build a deep and powerful long-term sustainable coalition in the nation. Progress were part of that top-down culture and should learn from its shortcomings. The GMB were in part victims of it – and should also learn from their experience. The future won’t be fixed by a few, it will be negotiated by all of us. We need to build on diversity and embrace difference as a strength.
The final thing to remember as the dust settles on this local Labour difficulty is that it might not be a competition but the left is winning. Ed Miliband, slowly, maybe painfully slowly, is getting bolder and brighter. Witness his speech on Saturday which said some none too dull things about a more equal society, breaking up the Murdoch empire and believing in an ethic that says there is more to life than the bottom line. Meanwhile, Jon Cruddas a free and radical thinker is now in charge of Labour’s policy review. Now swallows and summers and all that but just maybe the tectonic plates of Labour are gradually shifting.
Which on this one makes the GMB a bit like Dick Dastardly in Wacky Races. Remember that Dick and his side-kick Muttley would race ahead of the pack and, just before the finish line, set up some fiendish trap to stop the other racers. It would always back-fire and they would always come last. The GMB have a heap of stuff to offer about industrial democracy and how to improve the lives of working people. More than enough to worry about, without concerning themselves with a small group that has no real vision and is running out of ideas and reasons to exist other than to cling on to power within Labour. And no amount of funding from David Sainsbury will change that.