No time for foolishness

20th June, 2012 10:52 am

The sabre-rattling about cutting donations to Labour Party funds. The attack on those frightening people at Progress who seem hell-bent on doing unspeakable things, like building support in no-hope seats, helping local parties raise funds or debating ideas for getting the party elected. Ah, we must be coming into conference season.

Now, to be fair, during every conference season I can remember, I swear that at least one journalist has used the phrase “limbering up for a fight” to describe the mood of union leaders, only to be followed by their crushing disappointment at the relatively peaceful and harmonious Labour Party conference which usually results.

This time, however, it seems for once that the phrase might just be accurate. The return of the far left during the past couple of years, as evidenced by the Bradford West by-election and the resurgence of unpleasant views on the fringes of the labour movement and of the party, means the possibility of confrontation, although by no means certain, looks higher than it has been for some years.

That’s not to say our unions are overflowing with hard-left fruitcakes: they’re not at all. But they have a few, the few make a lot of noise and they’re highly-organised. Furthermore, thanks to most unions’ resolution-based conference format, a few well-organised fruitcakes can suddenly get a fruitcake motion passed.

What a union leader would be wise to avoid is to take that fruitcake motion and run with it.

Earlier this week, Unison’s Dave Prentis, not to be outdone by the GMB’s Paul Kenny, opted to pour oil on the flames ignited by the latter’s attempt to have Labour outlaw Progress, the self-styled New Labour pressure group. By saying he will support the GMB motion, Prentis is inviting other big union leaders to close ranks with their block vote and attempt to press a banning motion through Conference. Despite Ed Miliband having made a clear statement this weekend that he did not support the outlawing of anyone whatsoever, his statement was little reported in the media; and it looks from the outside, at least, like the unions might be in serious danger of getting their way.

And it’s not just how it looks, either: there’s real political power there. The overwhelming domination of unions in the party funding equation now means that they know they have Miliband in an awkward position. If they push, they force him into either accepting their demands (or electoral suicide, as it’s known in the trade); defying them altogether and ending up even more broke than before; or, more likely, confronting them, and ending up with the whole conference – and even, in extremis, the party’s whole programme – being blown off course by the row. Union relationships can be tricky for any party leader, but Miliband’s position is unusually pernicious.

Kenny’s was – let’s be honest – a poor decision to start with. It was poor because he could simply have ignored the motion from his members (let’s face it, union conferences are not exactly immune from the passing of wacky motions, almost invariably ignored) but chose, on the contrary, to get behind it and take it further. It was poor because he chose to ignore the effect it might have on the party’s programme and electoral credibility. It was poor because he, and his successors, will one day need to face down those same hard left entryists within their own organisation, whereas this merely feeds their hungry mouths.

But most of all it was poor because it missed what is staring us all in the face: that, right now, we are sitting in the middle of a fragile window of opportunity for Labour, to get ahead. Kenny and Prentis are not bad men, and I am sure they believe they are serving the interests of their members and the wider movement. It is fortunate, at least, that Unite’s Len McCluskey, according to LibCon, will not be joining them. But others may, and they are all playing with fire.

With the party riding high in the polls – even if that lead might be soft and largely down to the Tories’ current terrible handling of Hunt, Leveson, the Budget, Warsi and just about everything else – the media are finally, against all odds (currently 6-4, if you’re interested), starting to talk about Miliband as a future prime minister.

Now, let’s be clear: this is all unlikely to last. So the smart move would be to grasp the moment, get some definition on our somewhat woolly policy agenda and kick the Tories while they’re down, by looking together while they are still off-balance.

In the midst of all that, what do we least need? Well, how about a conference full of internecine warfare – the first in years – which reminds the country just how unready to return to government we still are, and why perhaps they should stick with the Tories? As Hopi Sen points out, it is not just the usual suspects (i.e. people like him and me) who have criticised Kenny’s move, but those who you might describe as “soft left” too.

And that’s because this is nothing to do with defending Progress for its politics and where they stand on the left-right axis: it’s about plurality. It’s about being able to have grown-up discussions within the party, without one side or the other going off in a huff. Say what you like about Progress’ politics, but its members have never shied away from robust debate, are usually prone to nothing but the most mild-mannered criticism of unions or leadership, and I don’t remember them ever asking for anyone to be banned, either.

And finally, it’s about not wasting our golden opportunity.

It’s about us looking like a government-in-waiting in front of the electorate in October. And not, as they say in my native Yorkshire, a bunch of daft ha’porths.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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  • Duncan

    Of course some people might think that this might be a moment for cooling down the rhetoric…

    Then along comes Rob Marchant with talk of “the far left”, “hard left fruitcakes”, “well-organised fruitcakes”, “hard left entryists”… 

    You don’t half know how to beat the pluralism out of somebody!  A few more articles from you, Paul Richards and Dan Hodges and I might just start thinking there’s something in this outlawing Progress idea after all…

    • Some people might…but that just wouldn’t be me, would it?

    • Brumanuensis

      Proof, I suppose, that the left and right of the Party are united in shared paranoia about their opponent’s tactics.

      • Most people who lived through the Eighties don’t call concern about entryism paranoia. It’s a reality, which is on the increase, by the way.

        • Brumanuensis

          ‘It’s a reality, which is on the increase, by the way’.


          Also, is it not rather obvious that in accusing the left of infiltration, you are doing exactly the same thing as those people who see Progress as part of a vast Blairite conspiracy.

          I don’t care for conspiracy theories either way.

          • So, where exactly have you been living: you think there are no organisations which have as part of their core modus operandi the infiltration of unions and Labour? Do you know who Socialist Action are, for example?

          • Brumanuensis

            I want hard evidence, i.e.

            Clear evidence of intent
            Evidence of successful infiltration
            Evidence of coordinated attempts to infiltrate Labour
            Named individuals assisting this
            Clear intention to subvert (i.e. maliciously alter) the character of the Labour Party


          • Oddly enough, I have better things to do than spend hours researching my answers to your comments. 

            The evidence is all there on the Internet, if you care to look for it. You can start with the infiltration of UCU by an SWP clique, and Livingstone’s coterie of Socialist Action. Neither form part of our great party. You can choose to close your eyes to this, or you can get better informed.

          • Duncan

            This is just nonsense Rob.  The issue re: the SWP and UCU is rather beside the point (as the SWP are not in the Labour Party, and the UCU is not affiliated to the Labour Party) – but as UCU is made up of college and university lecturers, I suspect that they have joined the organisaton rather than “infiltrated” it.

            As for Socialist Action, I know very little about the group, but could you explain to me how they differ from Progress?  You say they don’t “form part of our great party”… why not? I am genuinely curious.  I don’t support “outlawing” Socialist Action or Progress, as it happens.

          • Dave Postles

             Indeed, UCU is not affiliated and nor was one of the predecessor components (AUT).

          • Mike Homfray

            Also Socialist Action have been part of the party for years but hardly exist organisationally at all now. They were always much more loose knit organisationally on any case. In fact many members left SA altogether and the remaining ones became simply left wing members of the party. The group around KL are simply long standing associates who
            met via SA. Trying to portray them as any kind of entryist threat is daft and always has been. Apart from anything else the LRC who are clearly part of Labour are definitively to the left of SA!

          • john p Reid

            I think Socialist action keep a low profile so when they use endemcratic waysd to get their way, there so unknown it would make it had to expel them.

          • Homf

            Twenty years ago maybe.

          • This piece, Duncan, is about infiltration of the unions, not infiltration of Labour. Do try to keep up.

            UCU is an example, which happens to be non-affiliated. GMB is affiliated, and the proposer of the motion is ex SWP and Respect. Does this not suggest some kind of presence of the far left within affiliated unions too?

            Socialist Action are as far different from Progress as you can get. They start from outside and deliberately work to get influence within the Labour Party, like Militant did. Progress only ever takes as members people who are *already members of Labour*. Their workings are transparent and their accounts published. You see the difference?

            By the way, I have nowhere asked for the outlawing of Socialist Action, but they are a group you should be much more wary of because of the methods they use.

          • Duncan

             But I assumed it was in relation to the Labour Party?  Otherwise the point of it in the Progress context is a tad tenuous…  I assume you concede that members of parties other than the Labour Party are allowed to join unions that have nothing to do with the Labour Party, without being accused of entryism?

            So you are saying that Socialist Action was an external body that joined the Labour Party en masse to subvert it in some way?  As I say – I know relatively little about the organisation.  My understanding was that Socialist Action was formed in the early 1980s by people who were already in the party (though some of them had been in a party outside Labour previously – do any people fit that description in Progress?)

            I didn’t know Andy Newman was in the SWP, although I knew he has stood against the Labour Party in an election (as has Alan Howarth).

            Harriet Harman was in the SWP, mind you.  Not that it’s especially relevant.

            I repeat again – I don’ t think Progress should be outlawed.  I think that left should (can and will) win the argument without the need to resort to the rule book.

          • “I think that left should (can and will) win the argument ”

            In the end it all comes down to winning the argument.

            Progress’s dependence on undemocratic organisation merely serves to highlight their absence of political credibility.

          • treborc1

            Start up a Progress political party because that’s where it’s going

          • Brumanuensis

            According to your normblog profile, you used to work as a ‘communications guy’.

            Did you normally tell your clients, when they requested a summary of information, to essentially go and Google it? If so, how did that work out?

            Funnily enough, I’ve got more interesting things to do too, i.e. picking up my dry cleaning. If you can’t be bothered to even make an argument, why should we  take you seriously?

          • Fantastic.- That’s right, what LabourList bloggers should be doing is running round picking up information and compiling it into a custom report for you to ponder. 

            Yes, I am suggesting precisely that, that you go out and Google it.Socialist Action Wikipedia (click). Not difficult, is it?

          • AlanGiles

            You really do try to sound a little too self important Mr. M.

            You are unable to be polite even to thouse respondents who try to be pleasant to you.

            You are in danger of becoming LL’s very own Senator Joe McCarthy.

            If you want to make some specific allegations you should provide citations to it.

          • John Dore

            Nasty little man calling the kettle black.

          • Duncan

            Even some of these questions wouldn’t really address the charge.

            “Infiltration” = joining. 
            “Successful infiltration” = filling in a membership form, paying your money and being given a card.
            “Clear intention to subvert the character of the Labour Party” = participating in elections and policy discussions, pursuing a position or perspective with others disagree with…

            If members of a rival political organisation – e.g. the Conservative Party – did, in a clandestine and organised manner – join the Labour Party on a wrecking mission, then this sort of language would be appropriate.  But socialists joining Britain’s socialist party and working together to try and further their favoured socialist policies is something rather different.

            I am perfectly happy to say the same is true of Progress, and their lack of democracy is pretty much nobody else’s business but their own  (far be it from me to go around forcing my own version of democracy on unwilling populations) – but the claim that there is something qualitatively different between their approach and those of a number of little left grouplets (other than their undoubted success) is a bogus one.

          • Duncan

            In case anybody thinks I was saying Progress was socialist then, I really wasn’t.  I wouldn’t want to insult you, Rob. 😉

    • Anthony T

      I find this highly offensive as Rob Marchant is utterly dedicated to Labour values. I mean, he advocates regional public sector pay bargaining for one thing, which several Tory MPs are now speaking out against.

      How you can suggest that someone who wants to slash the wages of working people in the poorest regions of the country may not be a bona fide socialist is beyond me.

  • Guest

    The motion to ‘monitor’ the factional activities of Progress was unanimously endorsed by the Region moving the motion, the Central Executive Committee and the entire Congress. 
    So to suggest the entire representative structures of GMB are “hard left entryists” is a little inaccurate, though I suppose even those tin-pot democratic structures are greater than what currently exist in Progress.

    • Well, no-one did suggest that. I said there are a few hard-leftists, and they’re well organised. The motion was proposed by a former SWPer, as I’m sure you know.

      I’m not quite sure why resolution-based conferences are somehow an Athenean ideal we can all aspire to. Especially when unions’ own leadership tend to ignore them a lot of the time.

      • Brumanuensis

        Well, if you want ‘to have grown-up discussions within the party, without one side or the other going off in a huff’, then resolution-based conferences aren’t a bad start. I mean, what’s the alternative? Picking debate topics out of a hat? The motion is stupid, but that doesn’t mean it can be ignored, otherwise people will start to think they’re being denied an opportunity to discuss it, which is arguably even more damaging than just discussing it.

        • Great, let’s go back to the 1970s. That’ll work.

          • Brumanuensis

            Well what exactly is the point of having a conference if you don’t discuss anything? I thought you liked debate and all that jazz? Is the sole purpose of the Party Conference to just sit around and applaud people, gormlessly. Or are we only allowed to debate ‘approved’ topics?

          • Brumanuensis

            In purely pragmatic terms, think of it as follows: the motion is not discussed, through administrative maneouvering. The backers will probably go back and say that ‘the powers that be’ have blocked it and this proves that Progress has a strangle-hold over the Labour leadership. The campaign continues.

            How is that a better outcome than just thrashing it out in the open, ‘sunlight being the best disinfectant’ and so forth?

          • Have you ever been to a resolution-based union conference?

          • Brumanuensis

            Funnily enough, I find that when people ask me questions, they tend to prefer that I not answer with another question.

            Kind of  the same here, Marchant.

          • Dave Postles

             You are offered the chance for a productive discussion, but all you offer in return is a dismissive and abrupt response.  One-liners are the province of those of us not able to produce more cogent comments.  Those who publish comment pieces might try to engage in more reasoned discussion.  He certainly deserves better.

          • Dave, I too would like to have reasoned discussion. 

            But when our starting point is to pretend that all union conferences achieve their democratic objectives rather than the reality, which is that they are partly “managed” by senior officials and partly manipulated by small cliques, it’s difficult to debate because the premise of the question seems to defy the reality of anyone who has ever been to a union conference.

            It seems we are arguing from a base of not understanding the way union conferences work. I think it’s rather difficult to do this unless you’ve been involved with one yourself.

          • Peter Barnard

            Well, the 1970s worked a damned sight better than the 2000s as Blair and Brown, and the rest of “New business-friendly Labour”  would not say “boo to a goose” if the goose happened to be wearing a badge that said “FTSE-350 director” (especially if the director came from a bank).

      • Wait a minute.

        You just said he’s former SWP, therefore he’s well organised.

        But he’s not in the SWP, so how could he organise with the SWP?

        And the SWP well organised? Haha

        With all respect, Rob, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.

        • derek

          Siobhan, Mr Marchant has had his collar felt, he on the edge about to fall to the right and join the tories.

          • John Dore

            Nasty little left winger calls fellow Labour party supporter a Tory because he has nothing intelligent to say.

            Nah never happens. Derek, you’re an embarrassment.

          • derek

            Loud mouth, enlighten me? what policies do you want to endorse?What kind of society do you want to part of ? embarrassment to whom? chose the topic, I’ll go head to head, you choice I’ll lead.

          • John Dore

            It “your” choice Derek. 

            I’ll give it to you, you’ve been very consistent in what you’ve written over the month I’ve been here; partisan rubbish. You couldn’t lead a Majorette troupe at a village fete; as I said you’re an embarrassment.Good night Derek, I need to go to work in the morning.

          • derek

            Good night John! *r* so that’s it a Majorette troupe! stick twirling and the art of the right quick laugh.O’ surely you don’t wear the skirt for your performances? Long shorts maybe.

        • Winston_from_the_Ministry


          He said he’s former SWP and therefore hard left.

      • Guest

        You wrote: “It was poor because he, and his successors, will one day need to face down those same hard left entryists within their own organisation, whereas this merely feeds their hungry mouths.”
        So if the motion was only the result of a ‘few hard-leftists’ that are ‘well organised’ how did they manage to carry it unanimously across the entire GMB representative structure? 

        Lots of air and not a lot of sense I think.

        • Named people only get responses, sorry.

          • Guest

            You just responded you dick-splash!

      • Mike Homfray

        Former being the operative word.

      • John Dore

        Fight on Rob, don’t let the divisive  bastards get you down.

  • derek

    What a glutton your are Rob, wind that neck in. Infiltrators? like Luke Bozier or Ralph Baldwin.See, your old news with bad views and the grape vine tells me that it’s a silent mode when your around?

    • I think you’ll have to translate that one for me Derek. What are you saying exactly?

  • Brumanuensis

    And once again, in spite of the BTL punch-up, I actually agree with the broad thrust of this article. I don’t support ‘banning’ Progress and I think it’s a stupid idea to propose a motion with that idea in mind.

    • treborc1

      Better now then in 2015, because if this was to start at the end of 2014  into 2015 labour would be  dead in the sea, but I’ve heard now, that the Union is to cut all the majority of it’s funding, it’s to be used for training up working class MP’s  and like it or not labour needs every penny it gets right now.

      Perhaps it’s time for progress to give.

  • Once upon a time the Blairites would’ve ignored a critical motion from a Trade Union with an disinterested shrug, today they’re in a state of wild panic. This reaction betrays just how weak they are.

    • Delroy, your statement is I’m afraid wildly inaccurate. The motion being put forward to party conference is not a “critical” motion, like someone saying they don’t like Progress. It’s a motion to ban, to remove from existence. Do you not see the difference?

  • AlanGiles

    This is only about the 7th article on Progress to appear on LL in the past 9 days. The right must be rattled.

    Was your scribbling really necessary Mr Marchant?

    • john P Reid

      well if the worse the right do in someone trying to expell them form the party is put up 9 articles it can’t be all bad, What did militant do when they were being expelled, Oh yes they went and beat up A couple of democratically elected teachers in front of A class of kids

      • AlanGiles

        IU said 7 not 9 – where are the other two then?

      • Duncan

        What are you talking about?

    • You are right Alan.

      A Labour-aligned blog should ignore the prevalent issuing facing the party at present; an issue that has permeated into the national media.

      No, you’re right. Lets have 7 articles in 9 days on anything else. What about, say, former Labour supporters who now vote Green? You interested, Alan?

      • AlanGiles

        The trouble with all these articles David is that though the writers (usually) go out of the way to say they don’t like splits and schisms, they do all they can to rile the left. Marchant is a slightly more beligerant, and perhaps slightly more honest attempt, but those writers who pretend they are “impartial” soon give the game away with expressions like “hard left”, – everyone who doesn’t agree with them is a Communist, or extreme left wing, and this isn’t always the case – take Brumanusisi
        for example – his responses are always measured but that doesn’t stop Marchant here, and others elsewhere being tetchy

    • John Dore

      Alan, looking at the PLP, I’m certain when I say YOU’RE NOT LABOUR. You’re Militant or Socialist Worker, but not the inclusive Labour party in the shape its is today. 

      So go away and join your friends…. here’s a web site where you can meet your friends. Please do us a favour and GO AWAY you name calling stroppy man. 

      • Brumanuensis

        Irony, thy name is Dore.

        How’s sacking those four employees coming along?

  • Brumanuensis

    “Fantastic.- That’s right, what LabourList bloggers should be doing is running round picking up information and compiling it into a custom report for you to ponder. Yes, I am suggesting precisely that, that you go out and Google it. Socialist Action Wikipedia (click). Not difficult, is it?”

    My dry-cleaning was impeccably done, thank you. Although the tie needs a bit more work, so they’re holding on to it for one more day.
    First of all, I asked for a summary, not a report. Fairly major difference.
    You may be aware that in a criminal court case, the jury is forbidden from carrying out its own research. Why is this? Because the defendant is supposed to be judged on the merits of the case as presented in court, not upon any information he or his defence counsel is unaware of. The same applies here. I want to know what evidence you are (emphasis ‘you are’) relying upon: You are the person making the allegation here and the onus is upon you to substantiate your allegation. I’m not asking for 400 pages of densely argued forensics. I’m just asking for the basic facts upon which you base your belief. That way I can be sure we’re arguing about the same set of information, rather than arguing across each other from different sources.

    • Ah, you’re a lawyer, or something similar. Now everything falls into place.

  • Brumanuensis

    “Ah, you’re a lawyer, or something similar. Now everything falls into place”.

    Amazing. Just amazing. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m communicating with a grown man in his late-30s, early-40s here, and he’s behaving like a petulant child.

    I would never have imagined that a simple request for information would have prompted a hissy fit of the proportions demonstrated on this thread. And people like this claim to have the nous to advise our Party on strategy and policy. Good grief.

    • AlanGiles

      I think his behaviour and attitude explains why he is an “ex party manager”. The truth is his prima-donnish manner would put more people off voting for the party than encourage them to vote for it. Like the secretary of my local party, he seems to have nothing but contempt for those who doesn’t share his views, suspicious of anything or anybody vaguely “left wing”, which is not a good attitude for those promoting the “broad church”


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