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