Now the spotlight turns on Progress

Written By: Chris McLaughlin
Published: July 12, 2013 Last modified: July 12, 2013

Labour leader Ed Miliband is to come under increasing pressure to order an inquiry into the activities of Progress, the right-wing members’ group denounced by unions as a “party within a party” – a comparison with the Militant Tendency of the 1980s.

Questions about the group’s funding and involvement in constituency party selections for would-be Westminster MPs are expected to be raised at this year’s annual party conference in Brighton. Previous calls for a formal party investigation were reinforced in the wake of the row over the involvement of individual members of Unite in alleged breaches of rules in the Falkirk selection.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, who wrong-footed media and right-wing Labour critics of the Labour-trade union link by welcoming Ed Miliband’s reforms of union funding, echoed union views that negotiations on funding should go wider than the unions. “It is time the spotlight was turned on the activities of Progress… which has been sparing no punches to get its candidates adopted.”

Progress, founded around a monthly magazine by Peter Mandelson in 1996, is largely funded by Lord Sainsbury, once the Labour Party’s largest single donor, who withdrew funding on the election as Labour leader of Ed Miliband over his brother David. But critics accuse its organisers and leading figures – who include Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg, Lord Adonis, Shadow Cabinet member Liz Kendall and Blair McDougall, former special advisor to James Purnell – of using funding to organise within constituencies to secure parliamentary seats for Blairite candidates.

The Unite leader said: “The Sainsbury ‘block vote’ has been used to create a parliamentary party that does not look like, or think like, the broader party.” The perceived success of Progress in winning selections for its preferred candidates – dubbed by Len McCluskey as a “metropolitan elite” – was one of the catalysts behind Unite’s attempt to organise in favour of more “working-class” candidates.

In Falkirk , an internal Labour Party report into Unite’s recruitment practices suggests that some individual union members did, as Progress supporter and Shadow Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy claimed, “overstep the mark” by signing up recruits without their permission.

The extent to which this was done with the knowledge or concordance of Unite officials lies at the heart of the Falkirk fiasco. There is nothing in the internal party report – unpublished but seen in relevant part by Tribune – to justify the Labour leader’s lofty rhetoric on the “death throes” of the old party machine politics.

Indeed, the “strictly private and confidential” report says that a handful of members were signed up by family members without their knowledge and that there were discrepancies” in the signatures of four others. Unite is not held directly responsible. Labour justified the refusal to publish on the grounds that information had been given by individuals in confidence. It is also thought that the report would reveal that the Blairite candidate backed by Progress, Gregor Poynton, paid party subscriptions for 11 new members. All are reasons why Unite has called for the report to be published.

Progress has raised almost

£3 million to fund its activities, and its annual income exceeds the maximum ever recorded by Militant – £283,818 in 1986 according to its own published figures). Lord Sainsbury is the biggest donor, with more than £1.8 million, followed by a trust set up in the name of the deceased Lord Michael Montague. Other donors or sponsors include chemicals manufacturer Pfizer, Lord Bhattacharyya, Pharmacia Ltd, Jon Mendelsohn, the British Rail Consortium, Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd, the Police Federation, Nationwide, the Local Government Association, Unions21, UnionLearn the Open University and Sovereign Strategy. Lord Patrick Carter, who has donated at least £5,000 and was made a peer by Tony Blair, founded and ran the private healthcare provider Westminster Health Care.

Following the circulation of an anonymously-written report claiming to be into the constitution, structure, activities and funding of Progress, the organisation issued a detailed rebuttal saying: “Progress has never claimed that membership of the organisation bestows rights other than to receive the magazine and attend our events. The organisation was established to promote the modernisation of the Labour Party and the election and re-election of Labour governments.”

As one Labour MP observed at Westminster at the height of the Unite row: “If that’s what they want, why don’t they just give the money to the

Labour Party.” Nonetheless, Progress is defined by the Electoral Commission as a “membership association” rather than a magazine.

Unless it is somehow blocked, a motion agreed at its conference in June last year will be tabled by the GMB at Labour’s Brighton conference calling on Progress effectively to be outlawed. The GMB motion passed accused “prominent Progress members” of briefing against Ed Miliband and claimed that Progress was responsible for persuading Labour’s front bench to “support cuts and wage restraint”.

It went on to say: “Congress notes that Progress advances the strategy of accepting the Tory arguments for public spending cuts. [GMB] Congress believes that such factional campaigns to undermine Labour candidates, and to soften opposition to Tory policies, endanger the unity of the party and the movement in our fight against the coalition government.”

Following the announcement of Ed Miliband’s reforms to “mend, not end” the Labour-union link, the GMB’s general secretary, Paul Kenny, gloomily predicted that they were “as close as it comes to ending it”.

Len McCluskey was tactically more positive, embracing the opening of a dialogue on funding as a broader exercise. He said: “Unite has been doing far less, far later than the well-funded standard bearers of the New Labour status quo, and we have been doing it democratically and openly, with our members participating and our funding accounted for. On the other side, every manoeuvre has been deployed, often with the assistance of Labour Party headquarters, to parachute favoured candidates into safe seats with the constituency party by-passed.

“Until our Blairite critics face up to the serial abuses of party democracy associated with the New Labour years, they cannot be taken seriously as reformers. They simply want to carry on running parliamentary seats as patronage tools. Unions have always had a significant influence in the Labour Party. However, over most of the past 100 years, they have used that influence to broadly support the elected parliamentary leadership in the understanding that it is the MP’s role to lead the political fight. New Labour broke that unwritten contact by abandoning much of the common ground for a love-in with big business and the City and by leaving intact the Tory laws that make British trade unions the most legally restricted in the democratic world.

“I believe that Ed Miliband is rebuilding that stock of shared values. A row over selections is not going to undo that. Only a return to New Labour could split the labour movement apart.”

And that is what it’s all about. Still.

About Chris McLaughlin

Chris McLaughlin is Editor of Tribune