Alison McGovern: I can’t sit back if Labour activists are being told that they’re Tories
Three months after becoming chair of Progress, Alison McGovern has ran finally out of patience with her party’s leadership.
The Wirral South MP was front of the queue to vote for Liz Kendall in last summer’s Labour leadership election and went on to become chair of the decidedly non-Corbynite pressure group soon afterwards. Despite these credentials, McGovern insists that she was determined to play a constructive role working alongside the new Labour leadership. Until the shadow chancellor trashed Progress last week.
“We had all of this in the summer, right? All of this Red Tory nonsense,” she says, exasperatedly. “My friends and family nearly broke themselves to get me elected, because they believe in Labour values. Why would they have done that if I was a Tory? It’s so offensive.”
John McDonnell had taken to the airwaves to claim that departing shadow ministers were part of “a narrow right-wing clique within the Labour Party based around the organisation Progress”.
McGovern then tried and failed to get an apology out of the shadow chancellor, prompting her to withdraw from a project which hadn’t even got off the ground yet, aimed at looking into how best to combat child poverty and economic inequality.
She fumes: “I feel like I don’t want to get into rows like this at all. I want to get into rows with the Tories. But I can’t sit back if activists up and down the country are being told that they’re hard right Conservatives. It’s factually completely wrong and really offensive.
“It’s hugely disappointing for the Labour members who are part of Progress. To be clear, all Progress is is an organisation that has Labour members in it - you can’t be a member of Progress if you’re not a Labour member. It’s a bunch of Labour party members who have a magazine, who hold events and who go campaigning. Progress ran Labour campaigning sessions at the general election, people trailed the country trying to help out.”
McGovern also insists that the Labour leader does not support the stance taken by the shadow chancellor.
“This is not what Jeremy Corbyn’s about, he’s never done this. And people didn’t vote for this…. I don’t think this is anything to do with Jeremy Corbyn at all. I think it’s actually not what he wants. Whenever I’ve spoken to him I get the impression he really wants us playing a part.”
I’m speaking to McGovern in her parliamentary office at the end of a long week for Labour MPs, during which Corbyn reshuffled his team to remove the likes of Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden.
“It’s just such a shame that talented people have felt that they’ve not been able to continue or been sacked,” says McGovern of the recent shadow cabinet rumblings.
McGovern was born and bred in the Wirral where her first political act was as a seven year old with her friend “writing a petition to our head teacher to allow girls to be able to play football in the playground”. She worked as a parliamentary researcher for Network Rail and spent four years as a councillor in Southwark before entering the Commons in 2010 and quickly becoming parliamentary private secretary to Gordon Brown.
McGovern has taken over at the helm of Progress from John Woodcock, the Barrow and Furness MP who has become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of Team Corbyn in recent months. “I’ve got a huge amount of respect for him. Especially as his office is next door, so I would say anything else,” she laughs.
McGovern says she stood for election as Progress chair because the group had reached out to her when she was a councillor and she is keen use it as a vehicle to help other Labour campaigners “who are at the moment at risk of being left out”.
Progress is widely known as something of an uber-Blairite grouping and McGovern is clearly in no hurry to distance the group from the former prime minister – even if some have suggested it might be good PR to do so. “I am proud of all Labour governments from Attlee to Brown and I don’t think we make ourselves feel ashamed of anyone’s achievements,” she says.
But how does she respond to those on the left who say Progress is not as relevant as it was?
She says: “The thing that keeps me awake at night is the knowledge that there are people in the world who need a Labour government, and we can’t give it to them. Progress has always been about having a Labour government…..This is about giving people a proper chance in life, a home, a decent sense that their life is going somewhere. And Progress is an organisation of people who want that, who want to see ordinary people in Britain and frankly right around the world do better than they are now.”
And her response to those who complain that Progress is more concerned about winning elections than maintaining Labour principles?
McGovern bristles, before hitting back: “For me, it comes back to what I learned from being a local councillor in Southwark, which is: what’s the test?
“Is the test, can you make a great speech in the town hall? Or when you see one of your constituents in a flat that’s too small for their family with mould running up and down the walls, can you actually do something about it?
“And for four years in Southwark I made cracking speeches in the town hall, I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that. But I could not do a single thing for those mums who came to see me about their damp, mouldy small flats. And now my colleague Peter John, the leader of Southwark, is building better homes.
“That’s the test, can you make a brilliant, lovely speech or can you do something about it?”
During the last parliament Progress held 66 events, in 35 cities, engaging 3,000 members across the UK. This year the group is pressing ahead with its ‘future of the centre left’ events in cities across the UK, in which various Labour MPs and supporters get together to discuss what the centre-left project for Labour should look like and the role that Progress can play in facilitating it.
“We need to listen to people and build a movement of people who can get together the politics, the policies, the will, the organisation, to get a Labour government. I’m completely open minded and wanting to learn about how to do that,” says McGovern.
So is it fair to say McGovern and her colleagues are not yet agreed on what Labour’s next steps should be?
“What people have been doing is taking a look at the important areas,” she says. “There are a lot of big challenges that our country faces, whether it’s still the impact of globalisation in hollowing out the labour market, or demographic change, like the OBR tell us that the biggest challenge to our financial stability as a country is demographic change, an ageing population and how we deal with that. Or if it’s the role of technology, whether or not technological progress necessarily implies inequality, and if it does what do we do about it.
“I think those are the big challenges and lots different of people in the Labour party and the wider movement are thinking about these things and coming up with their ideas.”
Then there is the vexed question of who would front such ideas. Many in Progress expect – or hope for - the Corbyn project to implode before 2020, at which point a new leader with the right plan will finally be summoned.
As disgruntled Labour types look for the light at the end of the Corbynite tunnel, the conversations remain focused on Dan Jarvis and Hilary Benn. With Chuka Umunna still making the odd guest appearance. But is it fair to say that Labour’s non-Corbynistas are yet to decide on who is best placed to be their champion?
McGovern’s answer would appear to confirm that the jury is very much still out. “I don’t know. I think they have to speak for themselves. We’ve got a leader.”
What is clear is that it has been a testing few days for McGovern and many of her colleagues in Progress. And there could be many more such days ahead - especially if the shadow chancellor has his way. And yet the Wirral South MP remains upbeat about Labour's prospects.
Asked if she can still see a path to Labour taking power in 2020, she insists: “My first rule on politics is never give up, so of course I can see a path. We have to listen to the public, understand what they want in terms of leadership from government and try our very best to live up to their expectations."