You may have read some commentary recently about a dastardly GMB plot to strip members of Progress, a faction operating within the Labour Party, of their party membership.
Despite all the bluster, one thing is clear: there is no such move to expel anyone from the party. GMB members certainly have expressed their displeasure at Progress, in the context of a motion passed at GMB Congress. That motion didn’t call for the organisation to be banned, but it did raise concerns over its sources of funding, its involvement in internal Labour Party decision-making, and its efforts to undermine Labour’s Leader and candidates.
Proper scrutiny of the faction is long overdue. Members of the faction can’t deny GMB’s claims that Progress is resourced to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds a year – far more than any other pressure group within the party. Nor can they deny that this is in large part thanks to Lord Sainsbury, a wealthy backer who chose to stop his funding to the Labour Party upon Ed Miliband’s election as Leader, and of course to the group’s corporate sponsors.
So what’s worrying isn’t just the fact that the group promotes New Labour policies and seeks to influence selections for parliamentary candidates, NEC elections and other decisions made within the party. It’s the fact that it is sponsored by interests outside of the party to do all this. Those Progress members who have called for the unions’ Labour Party funding to be decoupled from policy influence, might well want to take a hard look at their own organisation. As ASLEF’s National Organiser has asked, “Progress gets millions from people who don’t give money to Labour – why?”
Many of these reservations could easily be rebutted if Progress was affiliated to the party, or if it was an organisation run by and for Labour members, with a democratic and transparent structure. Unlike other pressure groups within the party, it shows no interest in either of these. That gives it the freedom to work against the Labour Party when its own interests, or those of its sponsors, dictate. For one example, GMB’s resolution raises concerns that prominent Progress members have briefed against the party leader; the faction’s response states merely that there is “no evidence” for this, whilst falling well short of a denial.
GMB members are right to call for an investigation into all of this.
A few Progress partisans have attempted to explain all this controversy away as the actions of a fringe minority within GMB. That’s not going to fly. Like any motion to GMB Congress, the motion on Progress was submitted democratically by a branch – not by an individual, despite misguided criticism on these pages of the delegate who moved the motion. Before Congress even began, it was scrutinised by the union’s Central Executive Council and by the Regional delegation. It breezed through all these hoops. When the motion on Progress reached GMB Congress, not a single delegate opposed it, or even voted against it. Other motions this year were not given such an easy ride.
And whilst GMB members were amongst the first to express their concerns on Progress, this certainly isn’t some lone struggle waged by GMB against Progress. Yorkshire TUC and UCATT had already passed similar motions, whilst ASLEF and Unison’s Dave Prentis have since voiced their support. Others will no doubt follow.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that members of Progress have so badly misjudged trade union activists. Some members of both GMB and Progress have recently crawled out of the woodwork to plead, ‘where does this leave me?’ They might well ask themselves why not a one of them was represented at Congress. The group’s success in swaying internal Labour Party decisions has never been based on any popular support across the party or wider labour movement. That is no doubt why the Leader of the Labour Party felt able to declare New Labour dead back in 2010. Perhaps it also explains why Progress needs so many external resources to achieve its aims.
Progress is unlike any other part of our movement. It wants to be involved in the party’s internal decision-making, but somehow also to accept funding and direction from outside the party. It wants to be seen as a movement of Labour members, but somehow not to be run by or for those members. To its own advantage, it has managed to be two conflicting things at the same time, a sort of impossible Socialist-Society-cum-private-sector-think-tank. But now, Schrödinger’s box is being opened. Whether it likes it or not, Progress has questions to answer, and a stark choice to make about its future.