Sunday 25 June 2017

The End of Progress?

Consolidating Corbynism involves the transformation of the Labour Party from a vote-catching bureaucracy into a movement capable of winning power by prosecuting its class interests. This in mind, the decision of Lord Sainsbury to pull funding from Progress shows, if you like, some progress towards this goal. Needless to say this, which was apparently announced prior to the election to Progress staff, is a significant setback for the Labour right as a whole.

Progress was set up in 1996 as a praetorian guard of sorts for Tony Blair and New Labour politics. Presenting as an innocuous organisation known for sending free copies of its glossy magazine to leading local politicians and select "influencers", it runs policy seminars, day events, and a full roster of fringe events at party conference. And complementing its outward facing activity is its role as a clearing house and cadre school for career-minded Labour right-wingers. As a matter of course it offered training events for would-be politicians, and some members could expect (and received) coaching for selections. It also provided network opportunities between ambitious party climbers and the PLP cognoscenti, where it has and continues to exercise disproportionate influence. Take a cross section of the parliamentary party today, and you will find a surprising number of honourable members who habitually attended Progress events before their passage into the Commons.

And we need to at least mention the politics, of which I'm sure most readers will be familiar. Progress is the keeper of the eternal flame lit by His Blairness to keep at bay the shadows cast by trade union influence and Labour's socialist legacy. By stepping away from the party's heritage, "forward, not back" as the pithy Blairist slogan eloquently put it, Progress sought to carve out a post-ideological, post-political space for itself and mainstream politics as a whole. While the Master bestrode the Atlantic with earnest seminars in the Oval Office about the Third Way, it fell to Progress and friendly think tanks to put flesh on the brittle skeleton. Elected as New Labour and determined to govern as New Labour, the immediate intellectual project was one justifying "what works". "What worked" was Gordon Brown's adherence to Tory spending plans for the first couple of years of government, followed by "prudence": the extension of markets into more areas of social life. And there was the small matter of an increasingly punitive approach to social security. It was from Progress terms like 'combining social justice with economic efficiency' were conjured, that aspiration was understood narrowly as flashy gadgets and gaudy baubles for greater numbers, and market economics were enthusiastically spun as the most efficient and dynamic means of delivering services. Part of Progress's job was to enure the old ideas stayed beyond the pale, and to assist (read mobilise for and stitch where necessary) Blair's grip over the party machine from branch level all the way up to the NEC and conference arrangements.

Given its political history it is understandable why some view Progress as an alien body within the Labour Party politic. Unfortunately, making such a claim involves ignoring some inconvenient facts about Labourism's intellectual pedigree. Progress's outlook is fundamentally Fabian; politics is something that happens in government, and policy is about (the right sort of) parliamentary elites using legislation and government machinery to implement them. It's the Labour analogue of Tory patricianism as it requires people to turn up every four or five years for elections, and then leave the rest of the business to the politicians. Hence the other stuff, the politics of the street, the organising of community groups, the unionisation of workplaces, all of it is secondary and subordinate to getting into government and implementing whatever tumbles down from the top. The electorate, the members are mere bystanders.

Progress appears to break with the Labour tradition of right wing revisionism, but this is more at the level of appearance than political substance. While there are and were plenty of Progress-sponsored MPs from working class backgrounds, Blairism's post-class conceit revealed itself to be very much a middle class affair. The penchant for suits and commodity fetishism (in the non-Marxist sense), its love for power for power's sake, the top-down politics, the personnel officer approach to political presentation, and the hostility to trade unions that didn't shut up and hand over the cash as per USDAW and Community appeared to jar with Labour tradition. Right wingers of the past, even if they did hail from middle class backgrounds, always paid lip service to the received party culture. That was gone here in the name of electoral expediency and, in more than a few cases, personal distaste. Old Labour was naff and tired, New Labour was shiny and young, the Y2K aesthetic materialised in politics. Hence its tensions with the old trade union right, why lash ups between Progress and Labour First for internal elections and the like were (and continue to be) more alliances of convenience than genuine love-ins. Its strength was also an expression of the weakness of the Labour movement. New Labour and Progress would never have happened had the industrial politics of the 1980s played out differently, had bastions of working class power in the mines and the nationalised industries successfully held out against Thatcher's assaults. History would certainly have taken a very different turn.

Likewise, New Labour's and Progress's love for the market only appears to break the Labourist mould. Remember, prior to Blair's ascension in 1994 Labour politics were quite statist (or were more tilted toward the mixed economy) and were sceptical of untrammeled markets. These terms were entirely reversed and remain a key component of continuity Blairism. Remember, as recently as the 2015 Labour leadership contest Liz Kendall was advocating even more privatisation and marketisation of public services, the default assumption being that markets are good and efficient and state delivery inherently more wasteful and disempowering. Though, again, I would not argue this is a break within the received revisionist tradition of right wing social democracy but rather an adaptation to what it perceived to be the prevailing mood. After four general election defeats and 18 years out of power, capitulating to market fundamentalism and actively building a consensus around it in the name of electoral viability had a certain logic, even though it was the wrong thing to do.

Needless to say, the policy menu Blair handed down to his epigoni doesn't meet the tastes of the party and the country anymore. After years of lean and bland fare, the party and public are turning toward tastier, more substantial (if not a touch traditional) options. Progress, however, have been out of sorts since 2010 when their man wasn't elected leader. Over the following four-and-a-half years they took the hit for continued discontent and backbench bellyaching. Matters weren't helped by the appearance of an anonymous dossier that was mailed to CLP secretaries outlining their funding and their activity. It was a clear shot across the bows from unions finding their feet and starting to assert themselves in the party structures again. It also forced Progress to become a more open organisation with a regular conference and internal elections for its strategy board - though in practice decisions were made by the full-time director in conjunction with the revolving door of key Progress MPs and Peter Mandelson. Then come 2015, the poor showing for Liz Kendall was a rude shock for the faithful as it demonstrated how shallow their roots were in the wider party. The appalling behaviour of some affiliated MPs in the Commons during the first year of Jeremy's leadership followed by the defeat of the attempted coup marginalised them even further. This was congruent with the wider retreat of the Labour right and now, after the strong performance of Labour in the general election, what role for Progress?

Yesterday's scenes summed the difficulty up. As Jeremy Corbyn addressed a couple of hundred thousand at Glastonbury, Progress members were in a telephone box booing a left wing journalist. With the withdrawal of monies by his Lordship, Progress will have to turn to their membership for cash. Perhaps the shortfall can be made up by going cap in hand to its MPs, its friends in Community and USDAW, and former supporters of its events - like the British Venture Capitalist Association. A whip around at conference with a bucket too. Whatever they do, Progress's chief difficulty is political. How can you cling to market fundamentalism when it is on the slide in the Conservative Party, let alone Labour? What role in the party when electoral realities have collapsed their entire project? How can they detoxify themselves when they remain committed to stymieing Corbynism as it works its way through party structures? Where will the support come from as Blairist fundies among the membership drift away to the LibDems and/or private life? And what use as a career ladder now Progress are busily courting irrelevance? There are no easy answers to these questions for them. 

A future beckons as a disco night at party conference where all that is spun are the greatest hits of 1997 perhaps. Because at the moment that is all they have to offer.


Boffy said...

"New Labour and Progress would never have happened had the industrial politics of the 1980s played out differently, had bastions of working class power in the mines and the nationalised industries successfully held out against Thatcher's assaults. History would certainly have taken a very different turn."

Absolutely right, which is why Kinnock and the soft left's role in undermining the Miners Strike, of preventing the linking up of that struggle with that of Labour Councils fighting Thatcher's cuts and other attacks on local democracy, and their witchhunt against left-wing activists not only played a part in destroying a large part of the Labour Party during that period, but also played the necessary role in ensuring the endurance of Thatcherism in the 1980's and 90's, and its continuance in anotrher form udner Blair/Brown.

David Timoney said...

If you squint really hard, Peter Cunnah looks like Emmanuel Macron.

On a more serious note, Progress probably owe more to the US DLC than the Fabians, so their marginalisation should perhaps been seen in a wider context than just the Corbynisation of Labour.

Baden said...

Progress are a gerrymandering organization perpetuating the extreme right wing 'centre' and ensuring the drift continues.

These are clearly not their stated aims and for a few perhaps not a conscious aim.

This may sound rather simple minded, nevertheless it is correct :-)

George Carty said...


If the miners had somehow managed to win in 1984, could the Labour Party have ended up as a party of climate change deniers, as the Republicans did in the United States? Or would the Labour Party have ended up turning against the miners eventually (most likely in the late '90s) in the name of fighting climate change?

Unknown said...

Neither. A nuanced, holistic approach based on current emissions, scientific info, energy program, minimizing disruption.
The dichotomy posed is rather a crude one.

David Timoney said...


It is pretty meaningless to talk of Labour being for or against the miners, other than in terms of culture and sentiment. In office, Labour governments pursued the same broad policy as Conservatives, namely managed decline, which kicked in as early as 1920. It was also a policy largely accepted by the NUM who, to take one example, put up no resistance to the widespread pit closures and halving of employment that was overseen by the Wilson governments of the 1960s.

Though the miners gained a reputation for militancy in the 70s, this was largely the result of pay disputes, not closures, and the product of wage erosion relative to other sectors. 1979 marked the end of the consensus with the Tories committing to a deliberate shift in energy supply specifically to neutralise the NUM's ability to hinder broader industrial rationalistion (e.g. by supporting steelworkers).

Even if the NUM had "won" in 1984, the outcome would have been much the same, albeit at a perhaps more gradual pace. The coal industry was always doomed simply because of the UK's difficult geology and the increase in both alternative coal suppliers and alternative energy sources. The likely difference between what happened and any counterfactual would be greater state intervention to help mining towns, rather than just leaving it to the market.

A more sympathetic (or consensual) government than Thatcher's might have done a better job in this regard, however it's hard to believe it would have been that much better. Labour's 1987 manifesto talked positively of coal reserves and miner's workplace rights, but it gave no hostages to fortune on closures and was already banging the drum on environmental protection. If Kinnock had got to Number 10, it would simply have marked a return of the old policy of managed decline.