It all started with an anonymous document.
Well no, it all started back in the mist of time. Back when the People’s Front of Judea (Splitters!) decided they would wrest control of the levers of power from the Judean People’s Front. But this latest chapter started with the document.
The document was sent to Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) up and down the country, just as they we starting the process of nominating candidates to Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) – the governing body of the party.
The NEC elections are hotly contested this year. There are two main slates – one from the left organised by the Grassroots Alliance and one from the right organised jointly by Labour First and Progress. There are also a few extremely highly regarded independent candidates, who are challenging the domination of the slates*, and that, combined with the massive uptake of Twitter amongst politicos, has completely galvanised this election.
It was always assumed that the dossier was simply about the NEC elections – a way to bolster one slate at the expense of another. But after yesterday’s events, it seems there may be more to it than that.
Yesterday, a motion was discussed and adopted at GMB conference to “monitor the factional activity of Progress”. This in itself is a perfectly acceptable and not particularly controversial event.
The GMB feel Progress are a threat to their position in the Labour Party and the way the party operates and decides on policy. As a result they’ve decided to keep an eye on them. It might feel a bit intimidating if you’re a senior Progress person, but in a democracy, accountability means we have to be accountable to those who disagree with us as much as those who don’t.
If this is how the GMB have democratically chosen to set their political priorities I can see why they have. Progress do push an agenda that is radically different from that supported by a large group of people in the union movement.
Where the controversy arises is not, for me, in the motion passed by GMB members but in a promised motion mentioned from the platform by GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny who said:
“On Progress let me say this. I know that at this very moment a resolution is written and will be delivered to the Labour Party shortly. It is a rule amendment which will go before this year’s conference for next year which, effectively, will outlaw Progress as part of the Labour Party, and long overdue it is.”
This is significantly different than simply monitoring Progress’s activities. I await the final text of the motion, but to effectively “outlaw” a group is an extreme step, one taken by Labour against the entryist organisation Militant in the 1980s. It would be an astonishing step to take against an organisation which includes among its membership most of the shadow cabinet.
The question will be whether the other unions take up this cause, or whether they have other priorities. If they do take up the cause, unions and affiliated Socialist Societies represent 50% of the conference electorate on any motion, so if they unions work in concert, this could be a very worrying moment for Progress indeed.
For myself, I hope they don’t. I think there are far greater priorities for the Labour Party right now than talking about ourselves and our internal wrangling. Labour feels like it’s at a turning point at the moment with members coming together with a renewed sense of optimism coming out of the local elections, and a move as divisive as this could throw the whole thing into disarray.
It would – of course – be the focus of all political stories coming out of conference.
There is a great deal to criticise about Progress. They do not behave democratically internally (for example, there was no ballot of members to decide who they would back over the Labour leadership) and they are frequently criticised – rightly – for the way they sometimes behave towards members of the party who do not belong to their faction.
Progress would do well not to simply fight this (as of course they will and should) but to take the opportunity to learn from it too, and become a more open and accountable organisation. If they do that, they might just have the chance to close this down before it becomes a millstone around the neck of everyone fighting for the election of a Labour government in 2015.
There were also rumours of another contentious motion to conference yesterday, calling for the expulsion of Dan Hodges. Dan has – of course – quite flagrantly and deliberately broken the rules of membership of the party.
The problem is, so did Ken in Tower Hamlets. So did many, many Labour Party members in 2000 when Ken stood as an independent. You can’t have one rule for Ken and another for Dan and NEC member Ken is going nowhere, I suspect, so neither should Dan Hodges until he chooses to leave (my money’s on March 2015).
Why a resolution at conference? Individual expulsions should be a matter for the NEC, and can be referred at any time. It seems to me, a fair amount of showboating is going on here.
* Full disclosure – I am backing Johanna Baxter – an independent candidate – for the NEC.