I detest factionalism, in all its forms. It would be an understatement to say that the war of words which has been taking place over recent days, prompted by the GMB’s conference motion on the future of Progress within our party, pains me.
Which is why I have, until now, not contributed to this debate. That, and because I suspect this, quite rightly, isn’t the issue that is top of most of our members’ priority lists.
But, as the only member of the NEC not aligned with an established ‘slate’, I’ve been asked my views on this repeatedly over recent days. And I can no longer tolerate some of the wild claims I’ve seen banded about or contain the anger I feel every time I see another post which seeks to polarise the members that keep our party together.
Let me start by stating a number of things – facts which seem to have been lost, or certainly frequently forgotten, in recent debate:
- Progress is not perfect, far from it. Neither is any trade union.
- Not everyone on ‘the Left’ was associated with, or has aspirations to be the new, Militant.
- Not everyone on ‘the right’ supported the Iraq war.
- Our Labour party brings together a wide range of individuals who do not always easily identify with or conform to outdated definitions of being ‘on the Left’ or ‘on the Right’ of the party, many simply define themselves as Labour.
- We are a democratic socialist party with democratic socialist values.
- We are a membership organisation in which all members’ views should be valued.
Where prejudice exists some of those facts will be debated. If you accept those facts however it becomes easy to see that the basis of the current debate is not about whether there is a resurgence of the left, a dominance of the right or whether the trade unions have issue with the two Ed’s economic policy.
It’s about power – the acquisition of it and how it’s exercised.
We’ve all seen examples of where it has been abused – the CLP chair who seeks to exclude because they are frightened new activists will threaten their position; the candidates standing for selection that seem to get hold of membership lists that are not generally available; and the elected representatives who are never seen by their electorate for fear they might be held accountable for their decisions. These examples are, thankfully, few and far between but they happen in every political party and it’s what turns people off politics.
I don’t believe that Paul Kenny actually wants Progress expelled – after all he just endorsed one of their candidates in the recent NEC election (despite that being an election of the CLP section). And, if their main crime is that Progress train people for parliamentary selection then the Labour Women’s Network would also be on the ‘to be expelled’ list – they’re not, rightly in my view. Such a position would clearly be ridiculous.
I rather suspect that Paul is playing a classic trade union negotiating tactic – demanding something undeliverable, allowing people to be shocked and outraged and then coming back with a different set of proposals which, by comparison, look infinitely more reasonable. I rather suspect what he actually wants is to better regulate Progress’ behaviour, just as I rather believe that Progress would want to better regulate the behaviour of some trade unions. The problem they have is that whilst the unions are vulnerable to accusations of being undemocratic they do at least have democratic structures in place. Progress has ‘members’ that have no rights – they promote policies members do not agree and some candidates they have never heard of. The perception, whether or not it is the reality, that has been allowed to develop therefore is that it’s a closed and shadowy ‘club’. The same could be equally be said for the organisations on the Left.
It is understandable that Progress is angry at the attacks they have faced. But they would be wrong to treat everyone that has not declared allegiance with them to date as siding with the enemy.
The campaign against them has been amateur at best – the anonymous circulation of the original dossier was cowardly and demeaned any legitimate questions the sender might have had. It was also inevitable that it would lead to a counter document from them or one of their supporters.
I disagreed with both and so did most of our members.
If Progress want to live their progressive values they will use the current opportunity presented to them to acknowledge that. To pre-empt the GMB’s next move and commit to doing things differently – if they want to be a membership based organisation that should mean democratic structures.
In the end, this entire debate is a sideshow. The real issues Labour members care about are the savage attacks being waged on those we came into politics to represent by this current government. That’s what we need to focus on. If their must be a war waged internally lets make it against those who seek to divide in order to rule, those who judge before they engage and those who are quiet in the face of intolerance and injustice against others.
Johanna Baxter is a member of the Labour NEC