I have certainly had a busy week at GMB Congress in Brighton, with not only the usual hectic conference schedule, but also a series of meetings with activists and officials within the union to plan the next steps in our industrial action against Carillion.
In addition, on Monday I moved a motion from Southern Region committing GMB to opposing the influence of the shadowy organisation with the Labour Party known as Progress.
This motion had been submitted after a vote from the Wiltshire and Swindon branch of GMB, it was supported by the Central Executive Council, and was passed unanimously at Congress. GMB in fact moved a similarly worded motion through Yorkshire Regional TUC, supported by UNISON, a few months ago; and UCATT conference also passed a motion critical of Progress.
However, the tone of the response by the Labour Right has been set by Luke Akehurst over at Labour List. (We should acknowledge that Luke is more closely aligned with the Labour First group, rather than Progress. Labour First might be described as representative of the traditional right within the party, who value the connection with the trade unions, while adopting a “moderate” stance on policy.)
Luke plays the red-scare card about my personal political history. Perhaps Luke should reflect on that a bit more. Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, and we lost the 2010 election. The factors which placed me outside the Labour Party were two-fold: firstly my main political interest from 2001 was in opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which conflicts have been proven disastrous; and secondly, the control freakery of the Blair era sought to actively discourage activists like myself from being involved.
When Luke lectures me about the need to defend inclusivity in the Labour Party, perhaps he should consider some of his own former statements. For example:
I actually think Progress should be engaged in a branch-by-branch, CLP-by-CLP battle to expose the weaknesses in Compass’ analysis and marginalise them as an organisation. It’s bad enough that some Government Ministers are giving credibility to this pernicious and subversive grouping by speaking at its event, let alone that the people who ought to be fighting them are publicising it. I really take a strong objection to Compass’ constant undermining of the party and in particular the Prime Minister and think that all right-thinking people in the party should have absolutely nothing to do with them.
In fact, like thousands of other people, I simply couldn’t bring myself to join the Labour Party when Tony Blair was leader. Although I did not rejoin the party until 2010, this website, www.socialistunity.com, had argued support of Gordon Brown, and for a Labour victory long before then, and in 2010 I signed the nomination papers for my sitting Labour MP, Anne Snelgrove, as her proposer; and I worked hard in that election to get out the Labour vote in Swindon, including mobilising activists from my GMB branch.
While it would be disingenuous for me to argue that my political past is typical, I am nevertheless perhaps representative of one of the strands of opinion that the Labour party needs to reconnect with if we are to win future elections. Furthermore, the Labour Party has traditionally played the gatekeeper role of encouraging those with a radical political past into the mainstream; which has provided a healthy synthesis of idealism and energy on the one hand, with the realism and experience of the mechanisms of power on the other.
Labour is a coalitional party, but it is also a reforming party that seeks to build a better, more just and more harmonious society. We need to ensure that the spectrum of opinion we appeal to is broad enough win elections, but we must also have policies that are not only pragmatic but transformational. Not just seeking to make minor adjustments and manage the status quo, but to boldly restructure our society where necessary to improve the lives of all citizens, but particularly to protect and advance the interest of the disadvantaged, the hard-working, and the under-rewarded.
In the face of economic crisis we need to empathise with the sense of economic insecurity that affects both working class and many professional and middle class citizens; and we need to offer the prospect of economic recovery, and a safety net for those in need. This cannot be done by emphasising minor differences with Tory policies, but only by proposing our own agenda for growth, jobs and social justice.
The policy horizons of Progress are too timid, and too trapped in the past, and they resist the type of bold thinking we need. Remember that the ground-breaking adoption of Keynesianism into the party came from the unlikely alliance of the moderate Ernest Bevin and the firebrand AJ Cook – had Progress been around at the time no doubt they would have opposed such radicalism.
Let us also reject the victim complex, and lurid fantasies of purges and expulsions from Luke and his co-thinkers. I believe that the ideas of Progress are wrong, but I want the opportunity for the trade unions and the centre-left to prevail against them on an even playing field. The problem with Progress is their excessive funding, their secrecy, and their sometimes destabilising behaviour.
What I want is for Labour to win the next election, and to win it by reinvigorating its connection with the aspirations of working people, with progressive intellectuals and that part of the managerial and professional classes who have a social conscience. Of course there should be no going back to the politics of 1974 nor 1983; but equally there should be no going back to the politics of 1997, of wheezes, spin and triangulation. Things have changed since then, and in so far as Progress is an obstacle to recognising the need for Labour to change accordingly then they need to be opposed. They have a disproportionate grip on the party organisation, and this also needs to be addressed.
The funny thing is, at one level Luke knows this. He supported Ed Miliband and Ian McNichol. Progress supported neither of them. Ed and Iain are a winning team, but we need to grasp the opportunities that their leadership presents.
Luke needs to be a little less paranoid, and to realise that there is a sensible pragmaitic left who want a genuine debate about policy, but that also recognises the need to have sufficiently broad appeal to win elections; and not only to win in the heartlands, but also in the swing marginals.
The truth is that Progress is probably a paper tiger. Many people seeking a political career have loosely aligned to them in the hope of patronage and support, in the same carpetbagger way that careerists seek to love up to the unions when it suits them. If open support from Progress becomes seen as a career liability, then their influence will wane.
What we need is the wisdom to look beyond the tired rhetoric of left and right, that Luke Akehurst seems so addicted to, and for us to work together to make the changes in the party necessary to give influence back to the members; to draw up not only a vision for a better future, but the detailed policy tasks that can make it happen; and then to build an election winning coalition, broad enough to take on and defeat the Conservatives and their Lib Dem allies.