Blair’s Progress: The Return of Bambi?

July 25, 2012 7:30 pm

Is this man welcome in British politics any more?

Just as some voters thought it was safe to go back to the Labour Party, three-time election winner Tony Blair told the press how much he missed being Prime Minister and would welcome the chance to return to No. Ten.

‘Though I don’t think it will happen,’ he was quoted as saying –but he would be there to help Labour get elected. We can only imagine how Ed Miliband may have reacted to this news in private. It must have gone down like a cup of cold sick in the current Labour leader’s camp.

Blair feels he has ‘learned an immense amount’ in the last five years that ‘would have been so useful to me [as Prime Minister]’. I don’t know about ‘learned an immense amount’ but he’s certainly ‘earned an immense amount’ since leaving office; around £20 million a year according to some reports. Some of that from his £2 million pay packet as an advisor to US banking conglomerate JP Morgan.

A sick joke, maybe, that a former leader of our Labour Party could enrich himself at the feet of monster capitalism while passing himself off as ‘Peace Envoy to the Middle East’. Hold on. The Middle East? Yes, you’ve got it; that place full of sand and oil and despotic regimes where he helped launch an illegal war back in 2003. Nice one, Tony.

Now Blair is one again getting the Labour Party in his sights. He offers ‘advice’ to Ed Miliband by praising Miliband’s ‘sensible’ decision to keep the party in the centre ground and warned against shifting to the left.

To keep Labour on the Blairite path, a little known organisation called Progress has been established since 1996 by none other than former Chief Spin-Doctor, Peter (now Lord) Mandelson.

In the 1980s, when the battle for the Labour Party was in full swing, the Marxist Militant Tendency was eventually expelled. Chief among the accusations levelled their way was that they were ‘a party within a party’. Yes, they had their own newspaper, their own magazine, their own separate meetings and conferences. But so did other organisations of both right and left. The Solidarity group, for instance, had its own organisation. Many of its members eventually deflected from Labour to form the SDP. The Fabian Society has its own paper, as does the Tribune Group.

Do Progress have too much influence over the Labour party?

Militant was really expelled because they were at the forefront of the struggle for socialism, while the Kinnockites wanted to ditch any semblance of socialist policies and compete with the Conservatives on their own terms. The strategy failed miserably; Kinnock lost two elections and only when the majority of voters were sick to death of eighteen years of the Tories did ‘New Labour’ come to power, only to stick to Conservative spending policies and the anti-trade union laws.

But now, the three biggest trade unions – GMB, UNITE and UNISON – are questioning the role of Progress. While our unions are in the middle of a campaign against cuts, the Progress website on June 26 published a leading article ‘Let’s Stop Voting against the Government’.

UNITE leader Len McCluskey, the new Arthur Scargill figure of hate for the tabloids, said that the financial backing of Progress raises concerns. GMB’s secretary Paul Kenny said: ‘The questions about Progress, about its aims and funding, need to be answered.’ Even the moderate leader of UNISON, Dave Prentis, far from a Trotskyist, has called Progress an ‘intolerable think tank’.

GMB will submit a motion at the next party conference in September to ‘outlaw’ the group. Mandelson himself has said that to compare Progress with the Militant Tendency is ‘absurd’. Those defending ‘Progress’ say the group is open to all party members, and is not ‘secretive’ like the Militant organisation was. Yet in 1987, the ‘secretive’ tactics of Militant were to hold its conference at Alexandra Palace, with ten thousand attending and to always be on view selling their newspaper at all Labour Party and labour movement functions  — even as right-wing Labour officials photographed them to identify them for the witch-hunt that led to their expulsion.

But, ‘by your friends let you be judged.’ Lord David Sainsbury donates £260,000 per year to Progress but has not donated to the Labour Party since Miliband took the leadership. The highly profitable pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, also gives money –a lot of it made from our cash strapped NHS.

Lord Adonis, a former advisor and transport secretary to Tony Blair, has been chair of Progress since January, 2012. Stephen Twigg, MP and shadow Secretary of Education, is honorary president, while several Labour MPs act as vice-chairs.

The GMB union, at its congress, accuses Progress of ‘briefing against Ed Miliband’ and are ‘persuading the Labour front bench to support cuts and wage restraints’ and advances the strategy of ‘accepting Tory arguments for public spending cuts.’

Progress denies this, of course.

However, whether or not Progress is ‘briefing against Ed Miliband’ or ‘undermining the Labour front bench’, the current Labour leadership is doing fine with or without alleged interference from Progress.

How much control does the current Labour leader have over his party?

We hear regularly, in speeches and interviews with the Labour Party leaders -let’s call them ‘the Miliband Tendency’- how the ‘Milibands’ (rightly) berate the vicious cuts to the public sector, the lack of investments for growth, the tax cuts for the wealthy and so on. Yet all they offer themselves are ‘nicer’ cuts. Cuts there shall be but over a longer period of time. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, claimed recently that we will not be able to reverse many of the government’s cuts. Perhaps Progress is getting through to the Miliband team and, maybe, it didn’t have to fight too hard to do so because Miliband himself has already delivered speeches at Progress events, as have his two predecessors.

TUC Demonstrations

Miliband was careful to speak at the rally of the massive TUC demonstration against the cuts in March, 2011, yet he refused to support the two million strong national public sector strikes last November, or any other strike action. He also gained publicity as the first Labour leader to attend the 100,000 strong Durham miners’ gala in 23 years recently and made much of that in his eleven minute speech but made no ‘call to arms’ to the Labour movement. Clearly, Miliband’s strategy is to balance between both class forces within and without Labour –between the working class of the trade unions and the business elite represented by Blair’s acolytes in Progress. Whether or not he is doing Blair’s bidding, he is determined to hold the ‘centre ground’ as recommended by Blair and the Blairites within Progress.

Famously, when into only the first few years of his ‘New Labour’ premiership, Blair mocked those who called him either ‘Stalin’ or ‘Bambi’. He was said by his enemies to be either a ‘Stalinist control freak’ or a ‘lightweight’. He claimed to be neither. What Blair is, however, and what Progress is aiming to be, is the capitalistic clique determined to keep the Labour Party a party of big business and a mere electoral machine for its capitalist politicians.

Blair advises Miliband to ‘keep to the centre ground’, thus keeping the millions of pounds of desperately needed union donations flowing into their near empty coffers while assuring future support of the City when the ConDem government finally collapses. The order of the day is to keep to the middle of the road.But everybody knows what happens when you walk in the middle of the road –you get knocked over.

Some trade union leaders, like Sewotka (PCS), Crow (RMT) and Wrack (FBU) are learning fast that they cannot rely too readily on Labour anymore. The leaders of UNITE, UNISON and GMB still cling to illusions that Labour can be ‘re-claimed’.

A viable alternative to Labour?

What is really needed is a new working class party on the left. There is a campaign already underway for such a formation -‘the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’ (TUSC)- which calls for unions to disaffiliate from Labour and form a party that will implement policies to benefit the millions, not the millionaires.

The return of Blair to British politics will alarm a lot of people and they will begin to look for alternatives to vote for. Only the organised six million members of our trade unions and the anti-austerity campaigners, as a new party, will be able to provide such an alternative.

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