by Tom Watson
It is not true, as some uncharitable colleagues have said, that the people who run Progress are a defeated faction in need of a cause. I think, though, it’s fair to say they belong to a very different organisation to the one that Derek Draper, through sheer willpower, fused into a powerful force at the heart of the Labour party, whose influence endured for more than a decade.
I am one of the few people who has seen the confidential strategy document presented in 1995 to Tony Blair, John Prescott and funder David Sainsbury that led to the creation of the organisation.
I remember the day when Derek took the bus from South London up to Islington so that he could pitch the idea to Tony Blair. While the kids were knocking a football around, Derek sat in the future prime minister’s back garden outlining his plans for the organisation. Tony gave his approval on the express condition that Progress centred itself around the party leader and was not in any way to be seen as, or develop into, a faction. He laid down one more condition – it had to have the approval of John Prescott.
When he got the agreement to go ahead, Draper, brilliantly, brought together party activists from the Kinnockite left, Labour’s old right, the Labour co-ordinating committee’s uber-modernisers as well as grassroots activists who just wanted Tony Blair to win. With sheer force of will, he turned them into an organisation that convinced many that Labour had changed. I remember turning up to one of the many stakeholder management events – cunningly described as an inaugural meeting – to be impressed by the array of talent that had been persuaded, cajoled and flattered into signing up.
As a privately funded organisation within the Labour party, Progress warrants more scrutiny. It doesn’t quite possess a central command structure, but its leadership is never backwards in staking out positions on most areas of policy and party reform.
The members formed a group with unstoppable energy, relentlessly pro-reform in all its guises. They became the shock troops for a young, energetic leader challenging past orthodoxies in order to make us the electable party of the future.
Even the choice of logo – a mod target – was stylish, challenging and unashamedly futuristic. I may be doing the founding members of Progress a disservice when I say that the organisation understood branding, media positioning and triangulation more than any other think tank. Social events were often gatherings of creative advertising and PR people. They were interesting and stimulating and mildly irritating in the way that clever people who know they’re smart can sometimes be.
And as Jim Murphy succinctly observed at the recent, invitation-only, progress weekend conference, the big mistake of new labour – a key component of this being Progress activists – was to define itself against the party. But we shouldn’t define ourselves against New Labour now, said Jim.
We shouldn’t also define ourselves against the leader. Jim will know this too. He’s been around a long while.
Jim’s clever line was the one that got picked up in the papers:
“The quicksand of continual apology does not benefit us or those we aim to serve”.
Had I not had a surprising conversation in the House of Commons tea room with a respected colleague, I would have had no idea what Jim meant by this statement. I obviously know what the words mean, but why on earth would he use them?
“Why are we saying sorry on a weekly basis”? said my friend, a former whip. “We should be proud of our record on crime – it fell 40% when we were in power”, continued my indignant pal.
It turns out that he was irritated with Sadiq Khan. Sadiq gave a speech. It said a lot but was reported in the press as rejecting Labour’s past record on crime. It doesn’t, by the way. I’m not sure how the speech was spun, but the content is interesting. I’ve read it in full. He made a cogent case for an increasing focus on rehabilitation, or in New Labour speak “the causes of crime”. There is nothing wrong with that.
Poor Sadiq. He’s on a difficult pitch. He’s never going to sound as authoritarian as former Sun columnist, David Blunkett, or have-a-go-hero, John Reid. And because he’s the new kid in the shadow cabinet, he’s going to feel the sharp elbows of jostling colleagues for a few more months. He’s also lacking a deep political base from which he can defend himself and his position. He should work on that a little if he wants to triumph over the hurdles that are thrown in the way of people who hold high office.
And let’s be honest: even if Sadiq was being all trendy liberal and denying the past, which he wasn’t – much – then it strikes me that he is fulfilling an important part of our quintessential task of reconnecting. We lost a lot of broadsheet reading, open-minded, non-party affiliated city dwellers partly because of our tough-on-crime rhetoric. We lost more than a few blue-collar workers when we failed to deliver on it.
Surely the lesson of our law and order policy is don’t oversell? Be straight. Be tough. Be fair. Don’t bullshit. Don’t cut the police. It’s not rocket science.
Jim’s impressive contribution was undermined because it was perceived as a reaction to Sadiq’s speech. That’s a shame and I hope that it doesn’t deter the two of them from working together. They’re both very agile, pragmatic characters who know how to seize an opportunity. Working together they could become a formidable duo in our new leader’s team.
Also joining Jim at the private gathering was Caroline Flint. Caroline gave a speech on how Labour needed to be the party of hopes and dreams once again.
I admire the indefatigability of my colleagues. They gave their all to spice up the weekend of activities for Progress supporters. I admire them particularly because, and I feel cruel saying this, Progress is looking tired.
Where once they captured the future, they now seem to be protecting the past. Even the branding looks old. They’re the Heinz salad cream of the progressive left – everyone remembers the brand with great affection, but it doesn’t quite suit modern tastes.
Even my generation’s new Labour pin-up big-boy, old pal Paul Richards, wearily tweeted mild stupefaction during Andrew Adonis’s late night after dinner speech on the merits of high speed rail two. If Paul is weary, then Progress has a problem.
The organisation that chided Labour for being inward-looking and too focussed on sectional interests rather than being outward-looking and supporting the leader seems guilty of ignoring it’s own founding deed of trust, which I have also read. It governs the organisation and says it must be in tune with the “ideals and policies of the Labour party”. To breach this would be illegal.
I may be wrong – I often am on party nuance these days – but some of the Progress people always seem to promulgate a political purism that reminds me of the hard left of the 1980s. They’re always testing credentials and measuring modernising zeal. Somebody should tell them that too many shibboleths spoil the broth.
Even poor Ed Balls felt the need, in a recent interview, to declare that “I’m neither a centralist statist nor a naive libertarian. I’m firmly New Labour”. I almost felt sorry for Ed, having to make such an undignified genuflection to the past.
As we begin to draft our prospectus for the next election, we should never forget that the greatest lesson from New Labour is that winners have no time for nostalgia.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.