On Progress, the NEC and “dodgy dossiers”

23rd February, 2012 11:07 am

It’s getting dirty. The contest for the constituency places on the national executive committee (NEC) of the Labour Party has hit a new low with the circulation of a dodgy dossier seeking to smear the Progress magazine, and by association, the candidates it is supporting in the elections.

The dossier, the contents of which has been accurate and skilfully torn to pieces here, was posted to every constituency secretary. The envelopes bear a Windsor post-mark. The dossier has been gleefully punted around Twitter and the web by those supporting the grassroots alliance candidates. Few could blame them for that. They saw the chance to denigrate their opponents, and took it. All’s fair in love, war and NEC elections.

The question of provenance is harder to answer. There are still various grouplets around the party’s hard-left: the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), Save the Labour Party, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) and the Left Futures website, which includes Jon Lansman, self-described as a ‘veteran Bennite’ and ‘in spite of his wariness of parliamentary cretinism, he works in parliament for Michael Meacher MP’. But these groups are hardly backwards in coming forwards. If they produce a paper or manifesto, they do so to promote their brand and recruit new supporters. If someone has sat in front of Google, and done a (albeit half-arsed) research job on Progress, they would put their name to it. It would include the necessary socialist analysis and perspectives, laced with a little sectarianism.

Perhaps they have the resources to publish, print and distribute a document to 650 addresses, but why would they do it anonymously? In most detective work, you ask a simple question: cui bono? Or if you’re not a Roman, who benefits? Who has the motive and the means, and who benefits? Unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone, so the trail goes cold.

Dodgy dossiers have a long history in politics. The Daddy is the famous 1924 Zinoviev letter, which brought down the first Labour government, and ushered in the Conservatives. Some historians claim as many as 100 seats changed hands as a result of the ‘red scare’ that the Communists were planning increased agitation in Britain if Labour won the October election. A cabinet committee of the newly-formed Conservative government concluded that the document was genuine. They would wouldn’t they. In 1998, Labour’s foreign secretary Robin Cook ordered an internal investigation into whether the Zinoviev letter was a forgery or not. She had access to the files of both the Russian and British intelligence services, and concluded it was impossible to say who wrote it. The finger points to White Russians operating out of Berlin or Riga.

Chris Huhne knows all about dodgy dossiers. Huhne of course actually won the 2007 Lib Dem leadership election, in the sense of getting more votes than his rival Nick Clegg. By the deadline, 41,000 votes were cast, and Clegg had squeaked home with a majority of 511. But over a thousand votes had been delayed in the post. A Cowley street apparatchik conducted an unofficial count of these late votes, and concluded that Huhne would have won. We might have just lost a deputy prime minister and party leader to the speeding points scandal, had the postal service been a little quicker (or if the Huhnes’ car was driven a little slower).

In the knife-edge contest, Huhne’s team issued a dossier about their rival, called ‘Calamity Clegg’. It should have been required reading before the 2010 election. The document dared to suggest that Clegg was in some way inconsistent, said one thing to one audience and changed his views in front of another, and couldn’t be trusted with the leadership. Huhne had the document waved under his nose live on TV, and subsequently apologised for it. After that, his methods of denigrating a political opponent became less overt.

Did ‘Calamity Clegg’ make a difference? Clegg was probably on course to beat his less telegenic and less personable rival. Many historians argue that Zinoviev didn’t alter the outcome of the 1924 election, which Labour was bound to lose anyway. That’s the problem with ‘what ifs’ in politics.

I don’t know who will win the Labour NEC elections. It will come down to the usual combination of names you’ve heard of, people you know, people that other people tell you to vote for, and some pin the tail on the donkey.

Dirty tricks have the habit of messing up their perpetrators, not their targets.

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  • Duncan

    Interesting.  I can certainly confirm that if any group I’m associated felt that it could afford to send something to every CLP, it would not be an anonymous document of the sort sent here.  A browned-off candidate who hoped to get Progress backing seems a more likely source (especially as the authors appear to be anti-group, anti-slate, etc. rather than from an alternative group or slate). 

    But I was more interested in what you said about the Zinoviev Letter.  Historians – including Gill Bennett who was commissioned by Robin Cook – have pointed the finger much closer to home than the White Russians!  It is generally believed that Sydney Reilly – an SIS agent – wrote it.  Desmond Morton and Joseph Ball leaked it to the Mail, on behalf of MI6/the Conservative Party.

    Clearly this was in conjunction with White Russians, to try and prevent the Anglo-Russian treaty – but the original Russian version is believed to be in Sydney Reilly’s handwriting.

  • John Ruddy

    While the dossier was rather threadbare in terms of facts and substantiated allegations, it did get one thing right, didnt it?

    Progress is very influential, has very large sums of money, and no internal democratic processes. 

    i think that is something that will have to change, and the leadership will have to tell Progress this. Comparisons with Militant are stretching things, but not by much.

    I’m sure the upstanding people associated with Progress will want to make the organisation much more open, transparent and democratic, wont they? After all, thats the sort of things we claim about shadowy Tory bodies, isnt it? 

  • AlanGiles

    Well, Well: Paul Richards defends “Progress”

    Whoever would have thought it!

    • treborc

      Me you and a hell of a lot of real labour not this bunch of New labour. Nice to see Luke show his real colour not this rubbish I’m behind Ed.

  • Daniel Speight

    Is it really possible to have the history of dodgy dossiers without once mentioning Blair, Campbell and Iraq? Ha, what a straightjacket Progress find itself in;-)

    I did notice this on the Progress website.

    Progress is the New Labour pressure group which aims to promote radical and progressive politics for the 21st century.

    Now is it a New Labour pressure group or is it a magazine?

  • I don’t know who this dossier came from and neither does
    Paul. I may be naive but, though it was my blog
    (http://www.leftfutures.org/2012/02/call-for-labour-inquiry-into-the-organisation-activities-of-party-within-a-party-progress/)
    that brought it to the attention of the blogosphere, it didn’t occur to me that
    it had anything to do with the NEC elections until Luke Akehurst suggested it
    to me. He tweeted “I am 99pc sure it has not come from the left but from
    someone disgruntled that Progress hasn’t backed them” but the truth is he
    doesn’t know either. I’d certainly suggest that people vote in the NEC
    elections on the basis of where they stand on policies and party democracy
    rather than anything to do with this dossier.

     

    However, whilst I would much rather it had not been
    anonymous, the dossier does raise some serious issues. Although the ‘rebuttal’
    from Progress does clarify some minor points, it utterly fails to respond to
    what I see as the central objections. Since the departure of Tony Blair, the
    ‘Blairites’ have ceased to be the party establishment, loyalists to the leader;
    they have become a faction, albeit a faction with considerable support in the
    shadow cabinet.

     

    A party that allows democratic debate – as I believe Labour
    is beginning to be again – cannot prevent the development of factions. What it
    can expect is that organisations within it operate openly and democratically,
    and ensure that their internal workings and finances are transparent. On that,
    Progress does not deliver.

     

    There is also concern about the level of resources available
    to Progress. Of course, we only have a partial picture of Progress finances
    because we only know about donations over £7,500, and not even that for the
    first six years of their existence. But what really clouds people’s judgement
    is that, of the funds we know now about, 95% or £2.83m comes from just one man.

     

    Progress should put its house in order or, failing that, the
    NEC should examine the matter. When Militant was expelled, all organisations in
    the Labour party were required to be open and democratic and transparent. When
    will Progress comply?

  • When Progress start using their money to assist the Labour party, not their self-styled centrist party-within-a-party, then I’ll start taking them seriously. 

  • AlanGiles

    A very fair and balanced post, Jon

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