Time to fight for the Labour party

by Atul Hatwal

A few years ago, a colleague told me a vignette from life in the Labour party in the mid-1980s. She was a member of the proto-modernising group, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC), and acted as whip for the LCC group in her inner London constituency Labour party (CLP). At each constituency meeting, she said there was a ritual to begin proceedings: the first motion was always to open the window and it was always put to a vote.

The reason? To gauge the relative strengths of the factions present. The modernisers would vote one way, the melange of militant and hard left, the other. The window was irrelevant. It was where the players lined up that counted.

Today, Progress is that window.

All the agonised commentary within the party about the conduct of Progress, its fate and what might or might not happen at party conference, is utterly irrelevant because this isn’t really about them.

Since Ed Miliband became leader, Progress have been a paragon of dutiful loyalty.

Last year at conference, when Miliband veered off into classifying businesses as predators or producers, without having much in the way of evidence either way, it wasn’t Progress that criticised him.

The editorial in last October’s magazine was positively supportive:

“It is rare for the words of a leader of the opposition to change policy; generating headlines is their normal intention. Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour party conference, however, managed both.”

When Labour selected a disastrous mayoral candidate in London, Progress campaigned for Livingstone.

And most recently the key proposals from Progress have focused on how to improve Labour’s organisational machine. Ideas like the fightback fundraiser kitemark are hardly the stuff of left wing nightmares.

No, this is not about the substance of what Progress do. This is a power play by the left. The objective:  to flush out those in the shadow cabinet, and at the top of the party, who would publicly back Progress. Those who would stand up and defend a Blairite group with all that is implicit in that act.

Progress is a proxy for the future direction of the Labour party.

Enough of the shadow cabinet, ministers and backbench will have been privately reassuring to Progress. The direct messages, voicemails and texts are sure to have flooded in.

But in public, there’s tumbleweed blowing down the centre of Labour’s street.

No supportive tweets from the leader’s office, shadow cabinet members or their advisers. Lots of time to twitter about the football, Leveson or eternally good sessions on the #Labourdoorstep. Just not Progress.

It doesn’t matter whether there is a hostile motion at conference. This is a battle that has already been lost. The voices of moderation and sanity have been silenced.

It’s easy to be resentful. To blame the left. To point at a leadership who have quietly encouraged these moves to muzzle those who do not sip kool-aid from their cup of “new politics”.

But this would be wrong.

Politics is about organisation, commitment and belief. The left currently have all three and are campaigning to make their vision of Labour a reality. Many might disagree with them, I certainly do, but at least they are running on a clear prospectus.

The leadership are similarly acting in a perfectly understandable manner. The threat of a Blairite challenge is rarely far from the thoughts of the more nervous members of the Miliband entourage and the harder Progress is kicked, the fewer voices raised, the more distant this threat becomes.

If there is anyone to blame, the centre of the Labour party must look at itself.

In this sense, groups like Progress do bear some culpability.

For not fighting harder for their beliefs, even if this means conflict; not being more robust on the leadership’s mistakes and not doing what they were brought into existence to do: organise a distinct grassroots movement that would help anchor the party in the centre.

The furore over Progress will subside. Given the distribution of votes at conference, expulsion is not a real prospect and there is little further in the way of escalation open to the left.

But there will be other flashpoints.

This is a contest for the future of the Labour party and the conflict will not cease till one side has won. The choice open to the centrists within the party is fight or flight.

Regardless of the odds or the outcome, some things are worth fighting for.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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24 Responses to “Time to fight for the Labour party”

  1. Fertra says:

    Listen to yourself – “When Labour selected a disastrous mayoral candidate in London, Progress campaigned for Livingstone.”

    Good for political clubs, maybe, but that kind of blind tribalism is bad for the people of this country. Time to cut it out.

  2. swatantra says:

    The real problem in Party organisation is ‘ageism’, and by that I mean individuals that have given service and done their bit for the Party but won’t step aside for a newer generation. So, a youngish person looking in from the outside sees a Party made up of basically geratrics, with geriatric ideas and outlook stuck in a time warp. Perhaps there should be a rule change on ‘age’ setting a limit and/or the number of terms you can run for Office. That way you don’t offend individuals like Ken and others who think themselves indispensible and gods gift to the Party. The fact is everybody is dispensible and there is always someone else out there who can do the job.

  3. The Future says:

    Swatantra makes some excellent points.

    We need to stop the strangle hold that older people have on local parties.

    On the article it is funny. Progress people in private are anything but loyal. It ammuses me as they lose more and more support this way. Look at this years NEC elections for evidence.

  4. Adrian McMenamin says:

    Caroline Flint has certainly publicly tweeted in favour of Progress.

    The most bizarre thing about this whole shoddy affair is the comparison between Progress and the Militant/Revolutionary Socialist League. Of course it is no surprise that those who make the comparison were often apologists for the Militant/RSL when many of us were engaged in trying to save the party from them.

  5. Ed says:

    Err sorry what is it that Progress stands for again? (Apart from ‘progress’ obviously, whatever they mean by that)

  6. Good article but incorrect to say it can’t be passed at conference. If GMB can get UNISON and Unite onside they have about 36% of the votes straight off and just need to find 14% from smaller unions and CLPs. The guaranteed votes for Progress in the affiliate section (USDAW, Community and some small socialist societies) only adds up to about 8%. The CLPs in recent years have split about 35-15 right-left though some of the left may be pluralists and object to this.

  7. anniesec says:

    I want to vote for the suggestion that we have time limits on office and under ‘refounding Labour’ we all have the opportunity to start to introduce those sorts of ideas at a local level. Shame the last gov’t bowed to the LGA and didn’t introduce those limits for councillors when the commission suggested that in 2007. But we need to value our older members not dismiss their hard voluntary work as blocking techniques. There is a bit on my blog from last summer on this… and a bit about my concerns about Progress just before this all became far too personal. I am happy for discussion on party procedures like ‘time limits’, but let’s encourage that discussion in the party and not take decisions at Progress conferences. My Labour Party wasn’t like that in the mid 80’s and most of my members now have not heard of Progress.

  8. john P reid says:

    I wonder if your friend who attended the labour meeitngs in the 80’s when the Labour party was tearing itself apart ,yet the Miltant wign thoguht that wither Labour lost the 83 election “As it wasn’t left wing enough” or thought the Tories have 3 million unemployed we’ve wrapped ourselves up in red roses it’s just one more push and we’ll win enxt time, afterall we lost in 1959 and based on the Attlee govenements record we won in 1964, so LAobur will win on the record of the winter of discontent, Never mind Attllee and Gatskell lost elections with 45% of the vote,

    regarding Swatntatra’s view on A new generation, I honestly believe those who back Benn in 1981 were to young to recall the Damage Bevan did to labour in the mid 50’s and that’s why Labour were lsong eelctions then even without the tores doing something unpopular in those days like”BREAKING THE POST WAR CONCENCUS”,,

    Without sounding ageist, I do find the bright young things of Medhi hasan saying Labur will win the next election as we’re 14% ahead now can’t recall the 1987,1992 elections when laobur was 20% ahead in the polls A year before hand, And that where Ed Milibands silence on teh GMB and Left futures lies and intimidation to try to osut Porgress are similar to Wilson and Callagahan turning a blind eye to Militant infutrating the party in the 70’s as when they did the younger oens who support the GMB’s move can’t recall the disastrous effect that letting Militant infutrate the party had, as it wasn’t just the tores go tlucky in the 80’s there were Peopel who were Unemployed or had Voted laobur all their life who were appaled at what Thatcer was doing but if it wsa the choice between A centre right tory party or An extremsit Labour party ,there were people who were natural laobur voters going out of their way to vote tory as they considered Labour a danegrous extremsit organsation.

  9. Matt London says:

    When I read on Labour websites about internal disputes I’m reminded, a bit, of my father’s expulsion from the Labour Party (50 plus years ago) – but even more of a conversation I once had with an elderly work colleague who had been in the International Brigade(s) in Spain. He had on his desk an enamelled red star. I once asked him if it was his cap badge. He picked it up, looked at it thoughtfully and said – “No it was our political commissar’s”. “A gift” I asked? “No”, he said – “I took it off his cap after we shot him”.

    One feels sometimes that this is how the left feel politics should be lived – searching out and eliminating traitors.

  10. Philip says:

    I am delighted to read this article. Speaking as someone who believes that Labour is full of misguided people, some of whom might have good intentions but others who are just out for themselves, and leads to governments that always generate economic catastrophe, I welcome any news that the Labour party is imploding.

    Newsflash: socialism didn’t work and it is dead. The whole intellectual basis for Labour is therefore dead. It is long past time for Labour to be dead. Let’s get this rotting corpse properly buried and the country back to the much more sensible political divide of Liberals v. Conservatives.

  11. Red Rag says:

    Shouldn’t we be using all our efforts trying to fight the coalition who are systematically destroying the economy/NHS/public services/manufacturing etc rather than this endless infighting which doesn’t help the party but more importantly doesn’t help the people the party was formed to help and protect.

    It’s not like a party that is infighting actaully attracts the voters.

  12. MJL says:

    I noticed that Peter Hain was sending out an email to members urging them to vote for the progress slate. Maybe the soft left won’t back the hard left after all?

  13. Howard Knight says:

    Spot on, Adrian.

    Let’s just keep this simple. The GMB’s position and motion is ridiculous.

  14. stevep says:

    I regard the Labour party as more a foreign insurgency than a political party. Only 1 of your candidates for leader was English!

  15. Clint Spencer says:

    This is a battle for the Labour party. If Progress is expelled then its all over. The signal will be loud and clear.

  16. Red rage says:

    swatantra of course stood as an elderly MP, so why did he do it, I take it he felt he had something to offer. We have seen Welfare reforms the war in Iraq the wars in Afghanistan, all mainly from the younger generation of the labour movement, it’s also Labour that put up retirement age, so we cannot be all fuddie duddies if labour thinks we can work until eighty.

    John Reid is a time traveler who goes back in time to tell us that new labour is all we have, because basically he is of course an ex Tory.

    Seems Uncut these days is Progress

  17. Martin says:

    I cannot believe that there any some idiots in the GMB who are trying to tear the party apart by abolishing one wing of it.

    Plurality is a positive in my book and we should welcome all groupings within the Labour movement, from Progress to the LRC.

    Let’s stay united to win, and not fall into the Tory trap of division and in-fighting.

  18. Henrik says:


    If you’ll take the suggestion of an interested outsider, it’d probably be a good idea to have the blood letting now, so you can at least be in some sort of shape for 2015. If the Left wins, look for another two Tory governments, of course, but, hey, the best of luck with it – at least you can clear the air and, if you do decide to go for ideological purity, you’ll be back in your collective comfort zone – long-term Opposition, complete with all that delicious conspiring in CLP back rooms, massive feuds over tiny fragments of ideology and, vitally, no danger whatsoever of actually being anywhere close to the levers of power.

  19. Andy says:

    I think that it’s a good thing that Labour become what they were politically before. At least then voters know what they’re voting for (or not, as the case will be).

    Blair was basically a Thatcherite who used the party for his own ends. It makes sense for the party to try to close the door on that episode and retreat to the comfort of being a party of protest with no chance of power.

  20. john p reid says:

    red rag, I’ve never been a Ex tory, Treborc made that p, I can only deny that so many times, i’ve been laobur saince i was 13 in 1985,aund have voted labour in every election I’ve had the chance to even for Ken 3 times, regarding me being stuckin 1997, I’m actually stuck in 1992, If we don’t remember that election defeat we will never win agian

  21. swatantra says:

    … only in unwinnable seats, because nobody else would, and only in Essex, as I don’t fancy travelling all that much.

  22. Tom Miller says:

    Blimey, the tin hats are out today.

    What a bucket of paranoia!

    The only meaningful content of what the GMB have been saying has been about the way that Progress is set up – though obviously there has been a lot of unhelpful bluster as well.

    Anyway, this could easily be defused by letting it go quiet for a few months, then starting a transformation from private company to democratic campaign.

    At the moment we have the position of an external private firm waging issue campaigns and selection battles. A great propaganda tool for those of us on the party left.

  23. I totally agree with you swatantra. We need to find a better candidate. There is no point voting between the losers. Thanks!!

  24. uglyfatbloke says:

    Swatantra may be elderly – I would n’t know – but he’s (or she?) is prepared to speak out and if the electors of Essex put Swatantra into Parliament they will probably get their moneys worth. Here in Scotland the average labour candidate is senile regardless of whether they are geriatric. Bluntly, if Scottish labour can’t get past the Darlings, Currans, Lamonts, Bakers, Baillies etc. they are not going to prosper against the Salmonds, Sturgeons, Robertsons and Hosies of this world.
    I know that the polls are looking quite good in England and Wales right now, but if there was a GE next month the gnats would have a field day at he expense of Labour and almost certainly put the glib-dumbs out of business with the exception of Orkney and Shetland – and even here they will probably give him a pretty tight race despite the fact that he is a popular character and a decent sort of a bloke.
    Am I hopeful of an improvement in Scottish Labour? Not really. It is very difficult to convey to ordinary party members (party big-wigs just are n’t interested) in England or Wales just how deeply rotten the Scottish party is at every level. It’s not just the cronyism and corruption, it’s the blinding incompetence and embarrassing lack of either vision or ambition.

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