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Friday 31st
posted by Morning Star in Features

SOLOMON HUGHES on the widely ignored million-pound operation to stop Corbyn and boost Kendall – which even one of its leading members calls ‘an unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire’

THIS week the Sunday Times claimed: “Evidence [has] emerged that hard-left infiltration is fuelling a huge surge in [Labour] party membership.” 

It launched a wave of hysteria, with claims that Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the leadership campaign is powered by “outside agitators.”

Except there isn’t really any “evidence.” Apart from evidence that a large number of people are joining the Labour Party who like Corbyn. The party is being “infiltrated” by the public, which is what they said they wanted. Until the wrong kind of people turned up.

The press and television have been mesmerised by the non-existent conspiracy of 150,000 co-ordinated “hard leftists” paying their £3 memberships to join Labour. At the same time they have ignored a million-pound operation to stop Corbyn and boost Liz Kendall — an operation that even one of its leading members calls “an unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire.”

This unaccountable faction is called Progress. It acts like a party-within-a-party inside Labour, backing individual candidates and policies. It is rarely talked about in the national press, but is a big influence in the Labour Party.

Progress runs on £260,000-a-year funding from Lord Sainsbury. He used to fund the Labour Party, giving over £6.3 million between 2005 and 2010. But he stopped funding Labour when Ed Miliband got elected. Angry at Miliband’s fairly timid shuffle to the left, Sainsbury went on a rich man’s strike.

But he didn’t just take his money and go home. Instead of funding Labour, he funds Progress, whose job is to keep Labour Blairite. Progress’s income since 2010 is about £1.5m.

Progress, through its website, its weekend school, its meetings at Labour’s conference and its activist network push the candidates and policies Sainsbury likes.

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.

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.” It was a sort of joke, but many a true word is spoken in jest.

Hunt is a particular Sainsbury favourite — he was in fact Lord Sainsbury’s personal spokesman before he became a Labour MP.

Hunt was working for Sainsbury when Progress was formed out of the money left over from the original campaign to make Tony Blair leader of the party. Sainsbury originally got Derek Draper to run Progress. He soon disgraced himself and Labour by claiming he could get influence with the New Labour government for corporate lobbyists.

Despite this early link to a lobbying scandal, Progress still relies on money and contacts from lobbyists, alongside Sainsbury’s cash. In fairness, Progress is more open about its income than it used to be. Its website advises that in 2014 it relied on money and support from Bellenden Public Affairs, a lobbying firm that represents privatisers like Serco and NHS outsourcer Care UK. 

Progress also took money from Lexington, another lobbying firm whose clients include Interserve, another major privatiser, and the “Giant Vampire Squid” of banking, Goldman Sachs. The City of London Corporation put some cash into the Progress operation as well.

At the forthcoming Labour conference you could go and see a Progress meeting with Chris Leslie MP, shadow chancellor of the exchequer — and a prominent Progress member. The meeting is funded by the British Venture Capital Association (BVCA). It is the lobby group for private equity investors who are keen to privatise the NHS. A BVCA paper on the NHS said its members would make money from “a trend towards outsourcing (to independent sector providers) of publicly funded healthcare.” BVCA has been funding Progress meetings for some years.

At the same forthcoming Labour conference you could go and see shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant speaking at a meeting funded by mobile phone firm Talk Talk and shadow energy minister Caroline Flint speaking on a meeting funded by Hitachi, which is deeply involved in our heavily subsidised nuclear power programme. 

Progress is deeply committed to pro-privatisation and pro-corporate policies. It has also campaigned to reduce trade union influence in the Labour Party.Progress’s official position in the forthcoming Labour elections is to support Liz Kendall for Labour leader and Tessa Jowell for mayor of London.

Progress could not pick a candidate for deputy leader — which in fact shows how deeply Progress is embedded in the parliamentary party. 

Three deputy leader candidates — Caroline Flint, Ben Bradshaw and Stella Creasy — are all Progress members, so they couldn’t choose which one to back.

Burnham was also a prominent Progress member. However, when he was health secretary in 2010 he tried to shift away from his former Blairite plan to increase privatisation in the NHS. This enraged Progress, which published articles attacking Burnham’s plan to make the NHS the “preferred provider” for NHS services over private contractors. It said Burnham’s pro-NHS stance was a “nightmare” and attacked his “anti-market rhetoric on health.”

Progress’s favourite candidate, Kendall, will probably lose.

So Progress is spending a lot of time “warning” Burnham and Yvette Cooper not to be pulled leftward. Progress director Richard Angell is arguing that “Burnham and Cooper’s early opposition to cuts and vague commitments to reverse other measures does not bode well” and that “Burnham and Cooper flip-flop on welfare” because they did not back Harriet Harman’s decision to accept welfare cuts as fully as they should. This makes them, in Progress’s view, in danger of being “Corbyn-lite.”

Progress’s attempts to shift the party towards privatisation and other business-friendly policies favoured by their funders aren’t hard to find. But they don’t get reported that much because most journalists both rely on Progress members for their stories and agree with their Blairite arguments.