Lord Sainsbury’s Progress group is preventing Ed Miliband from breaking with new Labour, says SOLOMON HUGHES
ED MILIBAND's problems hanging on to the leadership of the Labour Party are made worse by the strong grip of Progress — a Blairite group whose own leaders admit they are “an unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire” — on the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Progress are a new Labour pressure group who, thanks to millions of pounds of Lord Sainsbury’s money and the loyalty of many of the front bench, are very powerful within Labour, even though most Labour voters don’t know they exist. It acts as a party within a party, pushing Labour back onto the true new Labour path.
It is not directly behind the current anti-Ed manoeuvres, which are a bit exaggerated by a hostile media. It is a pint-sized plot rather than a full on rebellion. But Progress’s constant hemming in of and humming and hawing about Miliband’s leadership wear away at his authority. It creates the background to the current mini mutiny.
Progress was founded using the money left over from Tony Blair’s campaign to become Labour leader.
Since 2004 it has received £3.7 million more. The vast majority of the cash comes from Lord Sainsbury. Business organisations like the British Private Equity Association add a few more thousand quid.
Since Ed Miliband became leader, Lord Sainsbury went on a rich man’s strike and stopped funding the Labour Party. However, Sainsbury still gives Progress just over a quarter of a million pounds a year. Sainsbury funds Progress to keep Labour right wing, but won’t fund Labour directly because he thinks Miliband is too left wing.
Lord Sainsbury’s life went something like this: Eton. Cambridge. Job in the family supermarket. Inherited billions. So he is unsurprisingly against Labour actually challenging power, wealth and privilege, or giving any real power to the kind of low-paid people who work in his family supermarket .
So Sainsbury funds Progress to run a party within a party, with its own meetings, magazine, website and networks. Progress helps favoured candidates get selected as MPs and organises support for its favoured MPs. All this activity is there to keep Labour as new Labour.
When I went to the Progress rally at the last Labour conference, Tristram Hunt was one of the speakers, where he declared he was “delighted to be with Progress” because “you might be an unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire, but you are OUR unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire.”
Here were two dozen true words spoken in jest. Hunt’s joke was so close to the bone that the shiny happy people of Progress — this is one of the biggest events on Labour’s fringe — seemed embarrassed into silence.
Hunt’s insistence that Progress was “the Praetorian Guard, the Parachute Regiment, the Desert Rats of Labour” also raised few laughs, even though the meeting took place in a Comedy Club at the edge of the Labour conference site. Even joking that Progress is new Labour’s shock troops was a bit too much
Progress mostly preferred David M, but it did accept that Ed M was elected leader. Leading Progress members like Caroline Flint have emphatically stated they are still backing Ed M to scotch the inflated stories of “mutiny.”
But at least some of the leading Progress people are so regularly undermining Ed that they can be dragged into any anti-Ed story.
Last weekend the Daily Mail was able to spice up its slightly made-up story about Ed facing an Ides-of-November danger by shoehorning in critical complaints from Tristram Hunt and Progress chair John Woodcock. Should Ed’s position become too shaky, Progress will be ready to push a Blairite replacement.
One striking part of the “plot against Ed” story is the revelation that 20 shadow ministers were willing to sign up for a Miliband decapitation, assuming that Alan Johnson could be persuaded into a subsequent coronation as Labour leader. The real surprise here is not the secret plot, but the fact that there are 20 shadow ministers. They don’t seem to be involved in digging up Tory misdeeds or campaigning around the country for change. They are busy doing nothing until it is time to feed rumours to the press.
This is where the Progress wing have hampered Miliband. They have accepted he is leader — for now — but don’t want to follow his lead. His little steps left are met with much of the shadow cabinet not moving.
Ed wants to move away from new Labour. They want to stay there. The result is stasis. As Labour’s Blairites stand still, Ed’s little shuffle forward collapses into a stumble.
Progress is standing in the way of Labour, well, making progress. It is also highly nervous about being exposed, as Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock’s defensive speech to the Progress rally made clear. The Progress rally is a happy-clappy event, with Progress people giving witness to the new Labour way. But Woodcock’s gospel was a bit downbeat.
In Woodcock’s words: “Let’s celebrate that the flame of 1997 — the flame that won us three elections on the bounce — let’s celebrate that that flame burns in every single person in this room.”
But Woodcock warned they must go beyond holding a candle for Blair. He warned them: “Let’s also remember that the flame was not first lit in 1997 – it burned in 1945, in 1964, and, yes, in 1900.”
Most Labour supporters can remember that Blair did not get this party started in 1997. There was a history before then. But it is a big deal for Progress to look back beyond Blair.
And Woodcock wants them to dig back into the Labour tradition because some people seem to want to dig them out of it.
Woodcock complained there are “some with loud voices and deep pockets that still get hot and bothered about Progress.” He isn’t worried about a Fleet Street exposé. The press rarely discuss Progress, because so many newspaper correspondents like them and rely on them for gossip.
However, Unite and other unions are getting cross about the group. Which is why Woodcock said “we’re dropping the new Labour tag.”
Progress wants to stop sticking out like a Blairite thumb. Instead it is adopting the slogan “Labour’s new mainstream.”
Which sounds like desperate branding bollocks, because it is. You can take the new Labour out of their slogans, but not out of their souls.