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Progress: A political embarrassment

 by Frances Docx and Conrad Landin

Dan Hodges is not the most reliable of soothsayers. On the eve of the announcement of Ed Miliband’s victory, the journalist and self-described “Blairite cuckoo” infamously proclaimed that “David Miliband has won.”

But Hodges, who now pops up whenever Newsnight or Sky News require a useful idiot to attack the leadership qualities of Miliband the younger, may have it right this time round.

Writing on the Telegraph website, he argues that Progress, the most established pressure group of Blairite Labour, has become “a cowed, timid political irrelevance.”

Progress has not been immune from attack in recent months.

After Tony Blair left office in 2007, the group that was conceived as a leadership-loyal think tank morphed into a Blairite factional machine.

Last year a fightback began to emerge, with supermarket magnate David Sainsbury’s donations of £1.8 million repeatedly called into question by trade unions, grass-roots activists and MPs.

But for a leading hack of the group’s own politics to defame it in such a way would have been inconceivable even a year ago.

There’s no doubt about it – Progress, once proudly promoted by almost all on the Labour right, has become a toxic brand.

This self-immolation isn’t the only sign of Progress slipping into political embarrassment.

Even last year, the aura of distaste rising from the organisation was beginning to affect those within.

The quiet resignation of vice-chair and “rising star” Rachel Reeves was a wise move by a sensible tactician.

Habitually criticised in the press, Progress has become almost a by-word for hypocritical, moneycentric and outdated politics.

The public recognition of Progress’s sodden state came to light in the recently suspended Twitter account, “@ProgressTips.”

Awash with satirical precis of Progress’s happenings, the account can be seen as a further symptom of the organisation’s decline into self-parody.

ProgressTips tweeted such observations as: “Say a personal and emotional goodbye to David Miliband tonight. At £500 a pop” and “Send your deputy director to Australia for six months so he can’t do any more damage.”

This was a reference to the despairing Australian Labour Party’s recruitment of Progress fixer-in-chief Richard Angell.

The Twitter account repeatedly held up the organisation as “embarassing,” pointing out its hypocrisy and oversights.

While only 18 months ago, the name “Progress” was fitting in offering exactly that to the careers of ambitious Blairites, it now finds itself the subject of hostility and derision. As Marx once observed, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

But just what was it that irreversibly transformed the connotations of new Labour’s most powerful brand?

Once considered untouchable, the group’s reputation was undoubtedly wounded after GMB general secretary Paul Kenny blasted Progress for promoting a “Tory-lite approach from a Labour government,” and called for the outlawing of the organisation as an internal party faction.

The “sexy” think tank – to use again Hodges’s terms – became a lot less sexy.

No more Nectar points for parliamentary hopefuls, many of whom promptly followed Reeves in disassociating themselves from the group.

Yet perhaps this dispute was merely symptomatic of a wider rejection of the organisation’s agenda and modus operandi.

Just as new Labour became old, Progress has become regressive. Clinging to the past glory of the “Tony” days, its website even promotes a page in homage to Blair.

A grinning portrait of the ex-PM is accompanied by a lengthy – and misspelled – quotation. We are even invited to “print” the page and, we assume, tape it to our walls.

Like Blair, who recently attacked Miliband’s Labour for “representing the disadvantaged and vulnerable,” Progress is not the bastion of Labour loyalty it was during the new Labour era.

When Miliband, after winning the Labour leadership in 2010, declared “new Labour is dead,” Lord Sainsbury ceased giving to the Labour Party and diverted his political donations to Progress.

A shrewd decision – for he knew that the faction would continue to pursue the policies that saw Labour go light on taxing the rich and regulating the banks, and haemorrhage working-class voters.

Some argue that Progress has declined in influence simply because the left is better organised.

But the past few years have seen a change in appetite too, from both political activists and the wider public.

Successful TV comedies such as The Thick Of It and Twenty Twelve have demonstrated a widespread derision for the jargon and hackery of the Westminster village.

The 2009 expenses scandal further cemented the public perception of politicians as hypocrites.

The focus group-obsessed Progress will pay lip-service to these shifts, yet nothing will sway it from its neoliberal agenda.

Articles on its website wax lyrical about “standing up for democracy,” yet fail to mention how former Blair minister – and key SDP operator – Andrew Adonis was appointed the organisation’s chairman.

The growing momentum for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, convening on June 22 in London, is testament to the appetite for a different kind of politics.

It is a sign of the hunger for a politics beyond platitudes and the consensus of support for the austerity agenda which has crippled Britain’s recovery.

Hodges rightly describes Progress as a “cautionary tale.” Yet in a week in which Ed Balls can simultaneously savage the government’s cuts programme and abandon universal benefits, it is a tale to which the political Establishment has yet to lend an ear.

Frances Docx and Conrad Landin are freelance journalists and contributors to Left Futures (leftfutures.org)

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