If you’ve ever been to a trade union conference, you’ll have experienced the strange feeling of déjà vu. You see faces you haven’t seen for 20 years. Isn’t that Dave Nellist over there? Wasn’t that Ted Knight? That paper-seller from the student union always going on about Thatcher– Janine something. Isn’t that her making a speech? The kinds of people who used to hang around Labour Party conference are all there. The paper-sellers from Socialist Worker, Workers’ Liberty, the Communist Party, or the Militant who used to stand outside the Brighton Centre or Winter Gardens are there – but as delegates, helping to shape the policy of the union.
It is hard to define a mainstream Labour Party member. But let’s say they vote Labour in elections, believe in parliamentary democracy, want to redistribute wealth through the tax system, support the NHS, state schools and the police and think people should have a job. These mainstream Labour views and values which place you on the left of society’s political spectrum, place you firmly to the right of the delegates to a major union conference. Everything is moved several steps to the left. A moderate is one who supports representative democracy; a radical is one who supports bloody revolution (at least until they go back to work as a GCSE geography teacher). Voting Labour is a right-wing act in this environment.
You’ll be familiar with May’s Special Law of Curvilinear Disparity. Of course you are. Political scientist John May determined that political elites and non-elites have greater shared values that what he called ‘sub-elites’. He meant that political leaders are in tune with the voters, but the middle layer of political activists are more extreme (to the left or right, depending on party). In the modern UK major trade unions, the model brakes down. Whilst the vast majority of trade union members have moderate views about life (and thousands of them vote Conservative), both the activists and the leaderships are well to the left. Under Labour, the last of the mainstream major union leaders Ken Jackson, was defeated. Now we have all the major unions led by men who are well to the left of the Labour Party’s centre of gravity. Lest you think this is some kind of criticism, it is not. Trade union leaders are democratically elected, unlike, say, the right-wingers who serve as high court judges, newspaper editors or Anglican bishops. Trade unions are a force for good in any society. Their presence is the sign of a healthy economy.
All of which makes the GMB conference decision in Brighton this week to ‘investigate’ Progress all the more of a distraction. The GMB has decided to take down Progress. Its organisers have been prompting attacks on Progress at regional Labour Party conferences, in briefing to the press, and will bring a motion to the Labour Party conference this Autumn. The delegate proposing the anti-Progress resolution at the GMB this week stood against Labour at the 2005 general election. His argument was that Progress was ‘disloyal’ which is ironic, really. Is this really the best use of GMB resources? Progress has refuted the arguments put in the resolution passed by the GMB conference. You can read the statement here.
For many on the left of politics, it is a simple question of revenge. After decades of marginalisation under Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown, they want some payback. Progress, the place Labour moderates have coalesced and discussed policy for the past 15 years, is a convenient target. Progress is guilty of several crimes: helping Labour candidates get elected, supporting like-minded people in NEC elections, providing a platform to former Labour cabinet ministers like Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman. You can see why the GMB wants to purge it from the Labour Party.
There’s a growing head of steam. As Luke Akehurst pointed out here, this is not really about Progress. It is about the hard left asserting itself, after years of a Labour government which failed to do any of the things they wanted. They never went away. They went into the unions, and bided their time. Now they’re back, coming to a CLP near you. And they will take over our candidate selection, policy-making and manifesto-writing if we let them. It’s why they’re in politics.
If you think the most important issue for Labour Party conference this Autumn is not the NHS or jobs, but to purge a small-circulation Labour-supporting magazine with five staff, then you should definitely support the GMB resolution. And once we’ve done with Progress we can get those bastards in the Christian Socialist Movement, Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Fabian Women’s Network.