Today, Left Futures features a 20-page report into Progress, the Party-within-a-Party, as it calls it. It calls on Labour’s National Executive Committee to;
determine the organisational nature of Progress, and whether or not this form of organisation is acceptable inside the Labour Party.
This is serious stuff because it is effectively asking for an adjudication on whether Progress should, in-fact, be a prescribed organisation. Let’s start at the top. From what I have read, this report raises perfectly valid and perfectly legitimate concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding Progress. Indeed, I feel it is quite democratically correct to insist that its structure is made both clear and transparent and indeed the sources of its funding are. We should know who is on its Advisory Board and precisely how they got there and we should know where their money comes from so we can judge their policy positions in that light. If Progress expects to be taken seriously as a legitimate current within the Labour Party then it should take these suggestions on-board, and ultimately, if they fail to comply then the question of disciplinary sanction is a legitimate one.
However, this is not the last word, Labour, as we should all be aware operates an affiliate structure. Some of the evidence used to support claims of its fractional activity are spurious and could equally be applied to other organisations, including left-wing groupings. Is it not true, for example, that organisations such as the Co-Operative Party, the trade unions etc engage in ‘training of Parliamentary candidates’. Is it not true that both left-wing individuals and indeed left-wing groupings ‘pursue changes in Party structure’? Campaign for Labour Party Democracy springs immediately to mind as a broadly left-wing grouping which campaigns for such things. It is indeed fair to say that the left is not even squeaky clean even when it comes to transparency and I can name at least one left-wing organisation which doesn’t allow reporting of its National Committee meetings.
The report seems to acknowledge this anomaly which is partly a result of the unique structure of the Labour Party in allowing affiliates. However, it concludes Progress is different;
because (i) it lacks any democratic mandate for the change of its role, and (ii) others do not have access to the very large level of funding that Progress has.
I would suggest there is little the National Executive can or should do about the second point. Basically, the disparity in funding exists because of the big disconnect between the Labour left and its potential mass base of solid support within the trade unions. This is due to failings on both sides of the equation. However, it is not really Progress or indeed its backers fault that supporters of core Labour ideals cannot get their act together. The first point is however, a more legitimate complaint which is entirely legitimised by the lack of transparency on the part of Progress.
The reports final three demands are a similar mixture of the perfectly democratically reasonable and the sublimely unreasonable. The demand that the NEC be provided with the founding documents, and full details of its structure, activities and fundraising of Progress is entirely legitimate and one I support. Indeed, I would urge Progress, in the spirit of openness and democracy to make all of these documents publicly available so that all Labour members can see what Progress is about.
However, the second demand, that Progress explain the “apparent synchronisation of its activities with dissenting parliamentarians in 2008 & 2009“ is entirely unreasonable and unacceptable. Since it is this report making the allegations then the burden falls upon the author to, in the first instance, prove that this was indeed the case, not on Progress to defend itself, in the first instance. The legal principle of innocent until proven guilty applies here. Finally, the third demand, that Progress provide the democratic mandate for its factional activities in promoting candidates, candidates and policies is perfectly legitimate but in and of itself would be satisfied by compliance with the first demand for greater transparency.
The report concludes that Labour should;
“place constitutional requirements upon Members’ associations in matters of fundraising, governance and discipline” and limit the extent of fundraising by such organisations, with excess sums to be donated to the central party.
I am inclined in some ways to agree with the broad thrust of this demand but it must be remembered that Labour has the affiliate structure for a reason, its historic place as a representative of and part of the broader labour movement. I would be loath to threaten that and I would caution comrades on the left; if these rules are drawn up then the political right may start to insist they are applied to trade unions. Since trade unions will never make specific political alligence an entry requirement, rightly so, it could be used in future to force their disaffiliation.
Finally, I think we must be clear that there is absolutely no place for ideological purges of the left or right in this Party. I abhor the politics of Progress but would not want to see it driven out of the Party by bureaucratic diktat. I want to see it lose the debate and lose its support within Labour because it is wrong and I very much believe many of its policies are wrong and simply out of touch with core Labour values. So many times we on the left are the victims of purges and organisational maneuvers yet still we seem incapable of learning the lesson that you cannot seek organisational solutions to political problems. Winning the democratic majority for our ideas is the only way forward and so weak are the ideas of Progress, so utterly bereft are they when it comes to offering real solutions to the crisis we find ourselves in, that I am confident the left can do this. However, if it seeks to win this battle by employing organisational means then it can only be the left, not the likes of Progress, that eventually lose.