Progress and the GMB should be looking for ways to work together

Luke Akehurst

I reacted to yesterday’s vote of condemnation of Progress at the GMB Conference, and the subsequent statement by the GMB’s Paul Kenny about “outlawing Progress as part of the Labour Party” more in sorrow than in anger.

Since the 2010 General Election defeat, Labour has on the whole acted with calm, maturity, comradeliness and inclusivity in debating why we lost and how we can win again.

We have avoided the recriminations, infighting and blame game that followed all our previous defeats in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979.

That is why we are now 14% ahead.

The last thing we need now is a sectarian bun-fight with an attempt to delegitimize or exclude one strand of opinion in the Party.

That is how we acted in the 1979-1983 Parliament and it led directly to 18 years in opposition and the tragedy of Thatcher’s assault on working class communities.

I feel an affinity, but not a total one, with both the GMB and Progress.

I am not a GMB member now (I’m in
Unite) but I was a proud member of the GMB NULO section when I worked as a Labour Party Organiser. My family ties to the GMB date back to the 1920s when my great-grandfather, Cllr William MacKenzie, was a Boilermakers’ union shop steward in Dumbartonshire and then Kent and suffered much persecution in the workplace for his union activity.

The GMB is historically a moderate, pragmatic union which has sponsored MPs from the Labour right like Giles Radice and Jack Cunningham in its North of England heartland. It helped defeat the Hard Left in the 1980s. The current General Secretary Paul Kenny is usually one of the most constructive voices in the Party, a peacemaker and alliance builder. I am proud to serve on the Party NEC alongside the GMB’s two excellent representatives Mary Turner and Andy Worth. They are consistently wise voices for working people. I am proud that I voted the same way as Paul Kenny and the GMB for Labour’s Leader (Ed Miliband) and General Secretary (Iain McNicol). I hope many GMB members have voted for me for the NEC.

And yet if I read Paul’s statement correctly, my association with Progress implies that I should be “outlawed” from the Party I have been a member of for 24 years.

I am as proud to be a member of Progress as I am of my trade union membership. I was there at the first meeting when it was set up by Peter Mandelson in the mid 1990s. I have always tried to attend its conferences and events (I missed this year’s conference to take my son to a Woodcraft Folk Summer Camp …). I stated that I was a member of Progress in my statement in the NEC manifesto booklet. I am delighted by the support they have given my re-election campaign.

Maybe this will cost me my seat on the NEC. But I would rather be honest about my political affinities and lose than hide them to win.

I am actually more heavily involved in Labour First, an older organisation on the moderate wing of the Party dating back to the 1980s and with deep roots in the trade union movement.

As such I don’t sign up to everything that Progress stands for. Does anyone in the Labour Party 100% subscribe to what one grouping says or thinks?

I don’t support primaries, which Progress does. I don’t think their
emphasis on elected mayors should have been such a priority. I was with the GMB opposing Foundation Hospitals. I supported Ed Miliband for Leader, not David who Progress backed. I strongly oppose the “choice” agenda and marketisation in public services. I think many Blairites think I’m a Brownite though I don’t shy away from either label.

But whilst I disagree with lots of things Progress says I will die in a proverbial ditch for their right to say them.

Are there people who really think supporters of Tony Blair and what he stood for don’t represent a legitimate strand of opinion in the Labour Party? What signal does it send to the swing voters who have only voted Labour in the three elections when Blair was leader if we “outlaw” (whatever that means) the organisation that most publicly carries forward his agenda.

What signal does it send to say Lord Sainsbury, a man who served as a Labour Minister for a decade unpaid and donated £18 million to the Party, the largest amount in our history, is persona non grata because he funds this “outlawed” organisation? How will we ever persuade him to donate to the Party again?

Why is there this bizarre conspiracy theory that Progress is all powerful when the reality is it lost most of its influence when Blair left No10 in 2007. There are about three of us on the NEC with even the most tenuous connection to Progress, out of 33!

How in practical terms would it look to “outlaw” an organisation whose events Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman have both spoken at, and whose magazine the Party General Secretary writes for?

Who is going to do the excellent work Progress does on issues like “Third Place First” its strengthening of rural CLPs, if it is “outlawed” or its funding curbed?

I don’t want to be on an NEC that seeks to police the internal political life of the Party and define what is politically correct and what isn’t. Our job is to uphold the Rulebook, referee the ideological debate, and guard the party against interlopers who owe their allegiance to another party, not to define what people can and can’t think or how they associate voluntarily with each other.

The can of worms that would be opened by “investigating” or “outlawing” Progress would be huge. I could have great fun looking at Socialist Action, which is said to be an entryist Trotskyist organisation and is secretive no one is quite sure if it exists; or the LRC (and by extension the Grassroots Alliance) with its affiliates that are parties hostile to Labour or proscribed by us; or at Compass with its inclusion of Green and Lib Dem members. And that’s before you start looking at all the single issue campaigns and “friends of” groups.

But to engage in this kind of sectarian feeding frenzy would be a colossal waste of time and get us not one step further towards beating the Tories.

The trouble with the GMB is that the extremist tail has wagged the moderate dog. The anti-Progress motion was moved by Andy Newman, ex-SWP, ex Respect, stood against Labour as a “Socialist Unity” candidate for Parliament in 2005, only rejoined Labour in 2010.

But when brother Newman moved his motion not one person got up at the GMB Congress to say this is sectarian, extremist nonsense, and to call out his political track record.

Partly this is the right of the Labour Party’s own fault. We are not engaged enough in trade union work. If we were we would have been there on conference floor to oppose this.

But partly it is the fault of the union leaderships who run scared of their extreme left factions and try to appease them by letting resolutions of more and more extreme tenor be passed.

The problem is that the ultra left showed in the 1980s they are never satisfied by just attacking the Labour right.

First they will come for Progress.

Then they will come for Labour First.

Then they will come to take over your l CLP and deselect you as an MP or councillor.

Then they will come for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

Then they will come for the union executives and general secretaries.

But there will be no one left to fight them.

And the eviscerated wreckage of the Labour Party, saddled with out of
touch policies and ruined by infighting, will totter towards a General Election defeat, and another, and another, just like we did in the 1980s. And all the time the people suffering under the Tories will be ordinary voters, GMB members included.

This whole thing is absurd.

Progress and the GMB should be looking for ways to work together.

Where the left and right of the party disagree they should resolve those arguments by democratic debate, not existential attacks on each other’s structures. That goes for any marginal fools who want to attack the union link as well.

We must not throw away the unity that has led Labour under Ed Miliband to a 14% poll lead.

I plead with Paul Kenny to show wisdom and leadership and step back
from this descent into the kind of self-destructive politics that ruined Labour 30 years ago.


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