Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is


10:01 am - June 17th 2012

by Jon Stone    


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From the moment he became leader until the moment he stepped down, Tony Blair was always significantly to the right of the rest of the Labour Party.

Even though Militant was long gone by 1994, Blair still had to assert himself against the party’s mainstream left with his ‘Clause 4 moment’.

He was constantly frustrated by what he saw as the slow pace of public service marketisation. It’s fair to say that Blair’s replacement by Gordon Brown was less about any enthusiasm for his successor than it was the rest of the party getting fed up with him.

Blair gained and held the party leadership by sheer personal charisma, and by reaping the electoral benefits of a shambolic Tory opposition. But his politics was never popular within the Labour Party or with its supporters, even after a decade of domination.

So it was no surprise that with the Blair-Brown tag-team’s demise the party rejected his successor. David Miliband was clearly the most classically capable politician in the 2010 leadership election. Ed Miliband is not an inherently charismatic person, yet he won a resounding victory in the popular vote by 175,519 votes to 147,220, and managed to edge out Labour’s electoral college.

This is the context in which Progress finds itself isolated within the party. The organisation never had a high level of popular support from Labour members or rank and file trade unionists in the first place – it just didn’t matter when the leadership had their ear.

Progress itself readily admits that portraying it as any kind of mass democratic membership organisation or society is a “misrepresentation”. It has always been a top down hierarchy, funded by a few wealthy backers.

The reason Progress’s policy range dominated the Labour Party for so long is because Blair and Brown dominated the leadership for so long. The organisation mistook its influence for it being the party’s political centre.

Rafael Behr at the New Statesman has blamed criticism of Progress on the “fringe left“. The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been.

GMB alone, which passed the anti-Progress> motion at its conference, has well over three times as many members as the entire Labour Party, making it a bloody big fringe. And the UK’s amalgamated trade unions have nine times the membership of all the political parties put together.

It would also be revisionism of the highest order to forget that it was ultimately the trade unions who were responsible for the ejection of the left-wing Militant Tendency in the 1980s, overruling the constituency Labour parties, who voted two thirds against its expulsion. This is the profile of a jealously centrist force.

There’s room for a legitimate debate about the merits of allowing Progress to remain a part of the Labour Party. The arguments advanced by Militant’s detractors in the 1980s will be put to the test again in an ironic reversal of fortunes. But if we’re talking about Labour’s fringe, it’s important to understand just who that fringe is.

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About the author
Jon is an occasional contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He blogs at The Red Rock
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Reader comments


1. John p Reid

progress is a magazine it doesn’t have the right to vote for members to become M.P.s or the leader or the NEC or policies,No one siad unions wre a fring of the party, I nopt ethe editor of Liberal conspiracy only joined laobur 2 years ago having backed the liberals and backed the greens for the Mayoralty ,so what does Liberal conspiracy know of who is a fringe within the laobur aprty, i also not that someone from the ceentre elft put on labour uncut if progress is explled then labour is finished,

I’m not sure union membership figures are particularly relevant to this debate about Progress. Do people think most union members think this is a vitally interesting topic? And you don’t have to be actively keen on Progress to find the anti-Progress motion unhelpful.

I’d hardly call 147220 people a “fringe”, but nice try. So tell me if Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister where are all you libcon nutters going to go. You don’t do serious politics, so are you off to the greens or the SWP?

@1 The “fringe” label for the criticism of Progress comes from this article by the New Statesman’s political editor http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/staggers/2012/06/campaign-against-progress-spells-pure-danger-labour

Blair’s legacy is the destruction of the Labour Party. I wish we’d lost in 1997 so we could have got rid of the New Labour gang and restored the real Labour Party.

Chris – I’m sure the Tories would warmly share your hopes.

Them, and the rest of the 80% of the vote registered population who didn’t vote for Labour in 2010

“But his politics was never popular within the Labour Party or with its supporters, even after a decade of domination.”

That would explain his dismal performance in the leadership election and thre general election wins. You hate new labour so much you have invented this bizarre parallel universe in which the public rejected it.

“I wish we’d lost in 1997”

Well at least your honest about it.

Progress represent the political mainstream, pro-privatisation, anti-workers rights, strongly favouring the wealthiest in society (and paid for by them), in favour of shrinking the power of the state (to allow the rich and corporations to operate unfettered by regulations or attempts to collect taxation) and diverting taxpayer money to the private sector through privatisation and PFI deals.

All political parties are in favour of this, it is the political consensus, the ‘third way’ if you like between lukewarm social democracy (the centre left) and the parties of the landed aristocracy and big business on the right. I know it looks pretty much like the principles of the right except worse, but that’s what the new political middle ground and liberal consensus is.

The Labour party long ago ceased to be a party of the working class, and limp attempts now to try and move back to slightly warmed up social democracy will fail, because apart from the trade union membership, the rank and file party membership, a literal handful of MPs and a few leftie trade union leaders there is no demand for it. These are people who literally don’t matter. Trade Unions will keep paying money in or they won’t even get as far as meetings that they are ignored in, and where are the membership going to go? The Lib Dems and Tories are exactly the same, and all that’s left are parties that our electoral system is designed to exclude.

The Labour party is a liberal party and nothing can change that. The process that began with the expulsion of militant is now complete.

Jimmy:

David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership election, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t huge parts of his party who detest his parts of his policy platform. Presentation skills are very separate from political views.

Based on rebellions, Blair looks more unpopular with his MPs than David Cameron is with the Lib Dems. By the time Labour was voting on things like top-up fees, he had a five vote margin. He was racking up 50 MP rebellions on things like benefit cuts before 1997 was even over. He still got booted out by the party despite winning three elections.

I didn’t talk about wider public perception, but you’re in denial if you think Labour was popular by time the last election came around. The party got 29% in 2010. That’s 6% more than the Lib Dems. It was not popular. That’s the state we’re in now, and we have to talk about the present.

The “fringe” label for the criticism of Progress comes from this article by the New Statesman’s political editor

Yeah, I saw that was a very poor choice of words. I don’t agree with the speech by Paul Kenny, but his is hardly a “fringe” opinion.

Is Mandelson involved in ‘Progress’?

Tony Blair was the most successful leader of Labour in history, yet you ‘demonise’ him! When will you grow up? I disagreed with TB on many things, but he was in touch electorally. Which the Labour left is not – always believing ‘we wus robbed!’ by the ‘meja’, when the electorate can see that lefty-wing nostrums will not work…

14. John p Reid

2-4 AND 6 well said do you thin that had Blair lost in 97 that either New labour would have given up, Bliar thought he was going to lose or at best have to form a coalition with the liberals and invite Livingstone back in the cabinet to soften the blow of having liberals with him as the left wouldn’t tolerate it, if blair had lost and been ousted then laobur may have swung to the left and the result would have been taht we’d never have won agian, it was touch and go that we’d ever win again after 83 and 87 ,as pointed out the tories had 3 million unemployed and inflation yet they’d constatly get 43% of the vote and we’d struggle on 30%, it may have been a moral victory for tony benn that labour got 27% of the vote in 1983 when he was in his amnsion, but if you were homeless in cardboard city without the NHS operation you needed ,i think you’d disagree.

Sunny,

It’s not a fringe opinion to disagree with Progress’s policy and political stances.

On the other hand, it’s pretty extreme to go fro. Disagreeing with Progress to wanting them proscribed as an organisation. I would say that this is a fringe opinion.

Labour can only move forward if it disowns much of the legacy of the Blair/Brown years, and make a clean break with the past.

On nearly every issue from welfare to civil liberties to the economy Labour’s opposition is hamstrung by the fact that it did almost the exactly the same thing when it was in power. The only way to get past this is to disown the disastrous neo-liberal economic dogma of the past 30 years, disown the vile welfare agenda of Purnell et al. And disown the abysmal record on civil liberties of the New Labour years.

All of these things are discredited and ripe to be jettisoned.

@13. TONE

Tony Blair was the most successful leader of Labour in history, yet you ‘demonise’ him! When will you grow up?

I would have given Attlee that accolade myself. Tony Blair barely registers as a pygmie compared to the likes of Attlee and Bevan et al.

I disagreed with TB on many things, but he was in touch electorally. Which the Labour left is not – always believing ‘we wus robbed!’ by the ‘meja’, when the electorate can see that lefty-wing nostrums will not work..

There’s much re-writing of history going on here. Labour were already well ahead in the polls when Blair became leader. A poll lead which he inherited from John Smith. So that rather calls into question whether the Blairite “rebranding” and gutting out of the Labour party was at all necessary. Given how unpopular John Major’s govt were in 1997, and the inept Conservative opposition of 2001 and 2005, it’s really quite difficult to see how Labour could have lost. Regardless of who their leader was.

17
Agreed

14
There is little doubt that the 1980s belonged to Thatcher and neo-liberal capitalism, but just as the experiment began to fail, the Labour Party jumped on the band-wagon. If anything, it is now unlikely that they will win outright in any future elections.

It is time for labour to stand on it’s own two legs, it’s time the Union decided to let Labour sink or swim, if it swims well done, if it sinks then sadly it will prove labour failed the country and failed to even keep it self going.

I said this at the GMB branch meeting.

The problem for labour is a bit like the country really it has spent to much expected the people to bail it out with billions for the bankers then demanded the tax payer pay more.

labour demands more and more from the Unions, when it should be getting more of it’s rich doners to pay more, I’m sure Lord Paul and his ilk would be willing to give a bit

“David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership election, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t huge parts of his party who detest his parts of his policy platform. ”

I absolute agree. Of course you do realise that this analogy makes you the Labour equivalent of Dorries and Hollobone.

If it comforts you to blame Tony Blair for losing the 2010 election then knock yourself out, but I think I may have spotted a tiny flaw in that argument.

That’s not what I’m arguing, you’re muddling up two separate points – by this point I presume deliberately. One is about Blair’s relationship with his party and originates in the article, the other is about Labour’s relationship with the public, a separate issue which was raised by someone in the comments.

The funny thing is the original draft of this piece actually had a paragraph of examples about how the wider Labour party had numerous run-ins with Blair’s politics, but it got edited out as unnecessary because we didn’t think anyone would try to dispute the assertion that he was to the right of most of the party, suffered rebellions and was forced out.

Obviously the relationship with the grassroots is different to that with the public. Grassroots of any party will be more extreme than the public. In that respect your comparison with the tories was well made. Ultimately it is better to be popular with the public than with the members. Elections are won in the centre. The further you are from the centre the harder you will struggle against this simple truth.

Remember that the piece is about Progress and Blair’s relationship with the rest of the Labour Party rather than how to win an election in 1997. I hope you accept my points on that.

On the separate issue of where the Labour Party should position itself, in 2012 a 12pt lead in the polls is produced by being significantly to the left of the coalition and talking about growth and jobs rather than fiscal contraction. It’s achieved by explicitly opposing marketisation of the NHS. Barely two years ago a 10pt deficit was achieved by promising more of the same.

So a nation crying out for a radical left wing alternative has communicated this wish by electing a conservative government. Just like they did in the 80s.

“Remember that the piece is about Progress and Blair’s relationship with the rest of the Labour Party”

No, it’s about your relationship with him. Not all of us are signing up to the lynch mob even if a recent recruit from the SWP managed to get a sectarian motion through the GMB conference. What was that about entryism?

Anyone who thinks a 12 point lead at this stage of a parliament is any reason to get cocky must be very very young.

25. Solomon Hughes

Oddly enought, the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr, the defender of Progress who implies the Unions are on Labour’s “fringe”, is also an adviser to Tory think tank “Bright Blue” – here he is in a pale blue jumper http://brightblueonline.com/team/ – helping David Willetts, Theresa May and a load of other Tory MP’s along with A4E’s Jonty Olliff-Cooper helping run a Tory think tank.

Jimmy: You’re making the mistake of treating ‘the electorate’ as a single entity. It’s many people with differing views, you rarely can say “the electorate wants this”.

A solid 32-37% of voters want a Conservative government. In 2010 29% of people who could be bothered to vote wanted a continuity Labour government. After a change of leadership and broad direction of policy, now 43% of people want a Labour government.

A hung parliament with both major parties on low scores implies a resounding “none of the above”. Not surprising when the choice was between “savage cuts” and “cuts worse than Thatcher”.

Labour have now managed to shake that off for now. It’s not a question of being cocky: Labour could lose the next election, there’s a lot that could go wrong. A popular war could boost support for the Government. The Tories’ economic strategy could actually work. The right could split from the party like they did in the 80s and take a small chunk of the vote with them.

I know, psychologically, what’s going on with the Blairites, and I sympathise. It must feel a bit embarrassing to have supported the wasting of three terms of Labour government, on the misconception that the public would never have elected anyone else, that Tony was special. Then six months out of the gate a lightweight social democrat with a ridiculous lisp who the papers keep calling “Red Ed” consistently equals the 1997 score in the polls. And all they have to show for their perseverance is the economy in ruins and record inequality. It must feel awful, but we all make mistakes. Just get over it, no one would be judging you if you didn’t keep bringing it up.

You keep talking about opinion polls as if they were real. I’ve seen this film before. I know how it ends.

“The right could split from the party like they did in the 80s and take a small chunk of the vote with them.”

As I recall it was rather a large chunk. And you do realise of course this is exactly what the GMB seems to be trying to achieve?

Does the film end with Tony Blair being elected in 1997? I’m pretty sure he had a lead in the opinion polls, shouldn’t he have lost?

What in your view makes this more like 1992, when the polls were famously wrong, than 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010, and all the local elections, including 2012, where the polls were pretty much bang on?

Refusing to engage with the reality of the situation is cute, but it’ll only lead to bewilderment further down the road.

29. John p Reid

16, the blair/brown years saw labour get 13.6m, 10.8m , 9.6m and 8.6m. labour got 8.4 million in 1983, and after 83 did the left accept that the ’83 manifesto was wrong or did tony Benn and sharon atkins say it wasn’t left wing enough.

“Does the film end with Tony Blair being elected in 1997?”

Mine does. I think yours ends with his trial for bourgeois deviation and counter revolutionary activities. Or perhaps with Kinnock’s 1987 landslide.

I’m not comparing this with an election year. Opinion poll accuracy has improved over the years. The lead however is soft. We polled blow 40 in the locals. And you’ve not mentioned Ed’s personal ratings. Given how impressed you are by poll numbers odd you should leave that out.

Ed Miliband’s leadership ratings are level with the PM’s these days, get with the times. Crucially they’re also moving in the right direction. You’ve made a rookie mistake with the local elections comparison: headline scores in locals aren’t comparable to ones in general elections because only certain seats are up for election: the result was better than anyone had dared hoped for, including the figures the Tories were putting out, and absolutely nobody thinks it was bad. Stating “the lead is soft” without any evidence says more about your mindset than it does about the electoral situation.

It’s quite amusing to watch the panicked denialism set in, but it becomes less funny when you realise you might end up dragging Labour down with you.

“Ed Miliband’s leadership ratings are level with the PM’s these days”

I don’t know which is more depressing, the fact that he’s running neck and neck with an empty suit like Cameron or the fact that there are people who regard that as an impressive achievement.

I don’t know if you follow the news, or perhaps you think this government has been a roaring success, a beacon of integrity and competence, but we should in the circumstances be out of sight.

sort of tells you how undemocratic internal Labour Party structures have become. Join it and you have bugger all influence on political direction and policy. Hack it up or be a rich backer and its your party.

Will the last social democrats and democratic socialists please stand up and vacate the rotting corpse formerly known as the Labour Party?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Unions aren't the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is http://t.co/J1mFlu8u

  2. Gez Kirby

    Unions aren't the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is http://t.co/J1mFlu8u

  3. Seema Chandwani

    Unions aren't the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is http://t.co/J1mFlu8u

  4. Casper

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/Og1pfjxb @libcon

  5. Jason Brickley

    Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is http://t.co/711nItDK

  6. sunny hundal

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  7. Kate Osamor

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  8. Tony McMahon

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  9. Martin Steel

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  10. Alex White

    Can't help but think @joncstone misses the point somewhat at @libcon – http://t.co/NVlU7JGc

  11. Chris Castle

    "@sunny_hundal: Unions aren’t "fringe" within Labour party, Progress is – @joncstone http://t.co/K0uhvfiK" "Unions expelled Miltant" !

  12. Ben Folley

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  13. Jamie

    Not sure this is so true anymore vis-a-vis Unions: Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is

    http://t.co/Pt2WaTaP

  14. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is http://t.co/DKA64x0K

  15. Dave Watson

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  16. Jon Stone

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  17. David Marsden

    Liberal Conspiracy – Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is http://t.co/DKA64x0K

  18. Ms B

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  19. Darren McRobbie

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  20. Phillip Tilley

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  21. Rabbit

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  22. Kath Caldwell

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  23. Lou Hart

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  24. Thomas Gardiner

    Unions aren't the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is http://t.co/J1mFlu8u

  25. Mark Carrigan

    Unions aren’t the "fringe" within the Labour party, Progress is – says @joncstone http://t.co/34vdZ0Zk

  26. Fighty McGirldude

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  27. Michael Bater

    Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/nUeBgObU via @libcon

  28. Citizen K

    Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/nUeBgObU via @libcon

  29. BevR

    Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/tRoRVpbl via @libcon

  30. Ian Woodland

    Unions aren’t the “fringe” within the Labour party, Progress is | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/yvMV9y6s via @libcon

  31. wendy griffiths

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  32. wendy griffiths

    "The trade unions are not the “fringe left”: they are Labour’s centre, and they always have been." http://t.co/IHTl2Qdh

  33. Jon Stone

    @CarlRaincoat That guy (w/the terrible writing?) comments in a lot of places http://t.co/ggt9jJxg Interesting to know he has a Parliament IP





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