#JezWeDid: from Red Labour to Jeremy Corbyn – a tale from social media

jez-we-can

Ancient History

Ok, let’s start at the beginning. Well, not quite at the beginning. I should just explain that I’m not seeking to give some sort of rounded, academic history of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. That will have to wait for another day, when the actual work has been done and we’re surveying from the top of a hill marked ‘Socialism in Our Lifetime’. For the moment, I can only offer a partial glimpse of how the campaign was constructed – and at that, only one aspect of it – the social media campaign. Of course there are a thousand other strands. I don’t deny that, but this is the strand which I have been almost totally immersed for the last four 14 weeks and, as it has been almost totally ignored by most of the mainstream media, I think it’s an important tale to tell. Of course, one of the reasons why social media is ignored by the mainstream is that there is often no single person to hang the story around. Social media campaigning is mostly a collective, anonymous enterprise – and where’s the story in that?

The story has characters, though. It begins in 2011 with a simple Facebook page, Red Labour, set up by Alex Craven – a Brighton-based socialist in the Labour Party. Alex is someone who recognised, at a very early stage, the power of Facebook to counter the continued Blairite dominance in the Party. The Red Labour page was initially set up in opposition to two colours of Labour which had come to dominate the Parliamentary Party – as well as the think tanks and party bureaucracy which buttressed the right of centre bloc at Westminster. The first, and dominant faction was Purple Labour, or ‘Progress’ as they tended to sell themselves. They were the bearers of the New Labour flame, a well-oiled machine with almost insurmountable power amongst the elected elite of the party and able to win parliamentary selections at a canter all over the country.

More recently, a new bloc had emerged, with nothing but a collection of ‘intellectuals’, a load of media connections and the odd MP. Blue Labour were closer to the old right of the party, but had rebranded with some anti-immigrant rhetoric and strange intellectualisations of the traditions of the party and the plight of the white working class. The key to Blue Labour’s influence was their connections to the leader’s office under Ed Miliband, rather than any pretence of building a movement, either within or without the party. If they had, I doubt they would have given themselves the toxic name Blue Labour.

Red Labour was originally set up as a ‘rapid rebuttal’ to New Labour / One Nation Labour spin which was a feature of both Purple and Blue Labour and the way they exercised their power. It chose the best contributions from Labour left social media activists, publicised critiques of the status quo and a displayed a hugely irreverent attitude to the grandees of the party. It was funny, sharp and relentless in its pursuit of hypocrisy within the upper echelons of the party. With it its use of graphics and snappy, shareable content, it soon took off. At a time when people were just discovering the possibilities of ‘mini blogs’ on Facebook, the Red Labour page gained 10,000 followers in short time. Suddenly, the unashamed socialist left of the party had an audience.

At that point, in 2011, the situation of the traditional left of the party couldn’t have been more different. Absolutely without influence, centred around the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – the ‘red’ part of the party had been marginalised by the concentration of power in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A small group of MPs still organised with the grassroots left of the party, but they tended to be the equally marginalised Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There was a further problem. The LRC was failing to gain any real traction in the party itself. The grassroots movement which we all knew needed to be built, wasn’t developing in the way we all knew it needed to if we were to challenge. With the heavily resourced Progress still trouncing the left in selections and Blue Labour whispering in Ed’s ear, the LRC, for all their commitment, didn’t look like breaking this vicious cycle.

A few younger LRC activists, including myself and Max Shanly felt that we needed to take radical steps and joined Alex in pursuing the Red Labour project. A bit laughably, some of the more excitable sections of the left positioned around the LRC called it a ‘split’ when it was nothing of the sort. It was just that, like Alex, we believed there was a huge opportunity to connect to a whole group that were beyond the reach of those traditional approaches to socialist politics. Though, like many others, we had criticisms of the LRC, it wasn’t fundamentally about that (I still have my LRC membership card) but we decided to target our efforts at building Red Labour. With more of us contributing, the page grew at a rapid pace. It became more creative, more diverse and more focused on changing the party. Red Labour, on Facebook at least, first became one of the liveliest spaces for the Labour left, and soon, at 20,000, the largest (with the exception of the official Labour Party page).

Inevitably, people soon started to talk about taking it offline. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to help people set up regional groups and the wider, more ambitious Red Labour project was starting to take shape, based not on a membership-style organisation, but a looser supporter network. This brought in a whole new group of activists into the Red Labour operation. In about the space of a year (from 2012 to 2013) it had turned into a serious group within the party. We continued with our staples – we had a particular penchant for Nye Bevan memes, for instance – but now people were meeting offline and organising locally and regionally. That made us stronger, but with more of a sense of responsibility.

The point is about Red Labour is that it was always seen a serious intervention into the party, but we weren’t prepared to play by the rules which seemed to have been set out by those on the left and right of us. It wasn’t quite so earnest as either – it was explicitly populist and accessible. As the 2015 election approached, for example, we presented a series of radical policy proposals, but in badge form. We sought out debate, sometimes controversy – and we tested things out, knowing we’d make mistakes occasionally. This was so radically different from the official output from the party, that it continued to attract a following, both on Facebook and Twitter. Occasionally, we’d post things that the whole team wouldn’t necessary agree with. The Scottish Referendum was a case in point. We didn’t have unanimity within the group, so we decided to post both Yes and No articles on an equal basis.

At other times we’d pull posts as dissent became obvious within the organisers group we’d assembled. Our attitude from day one was never to duck an issue. Let’s argue it out – on the page, through the threads. The philosophy was that, on everything from migration to welfare, we needed to win hearts and minds, even if that meant engaging in late night (and sometimes tedious) battles on the Red Labour page. Gradually, we found that regular visitors to the page would take on each other, normally in a fairly comradely way, but our approach was always an interventionist one. This made it fraught at times, but through all that, we stuck together, determined that we could work together and build this project together – and aware that there weren’t many chances left.

Pre History

When Ed Miliband resigned in the immediate aftermath of that calamitous General Election, our Red Labour group was generally sceptical about the idea of running a candidate from the left. During the election campaign, we’d done some analysis of the strength of the left of the party in Parliament (and as candidates) and even with a small group of union-backed new candidates being elected, the prospects weren’t good. We estimated 48/49 MPs who could be seen as either rebels or on the left of the party. Even this was stretching the meaning of both words to breaking point. We were fully aware that, as a result of the Collins Review, the bar for PLP nominations had been set even higher. The veto that the Parliamentary Party had was formidable. When Andy Burnham declared early and his team swooped on at least 20 of that list without so much as a blink of the eye, the prospects looked even bleaker. However, within the Red Labour group, the debate began – and we ran over the possibilities again and again. We wrote letters to some of the most likely suspects, even if it was just to put up a candidate so we could have a debate about the veto that the Parliamentary Party had over the choice of a leader.

At this point (in this no-mans-land between Ed resigning and the Labour left finding themselves a candidate) two important things happened which have been buried amongst all the other factors that have been cited. James Doran, a Red Labour organiser in Darlington set up a Facebook page, ‘We want John McDonnell as Labour Leader’. As we had contacted John already, we knew that he wasn’t likely to stand again, but James decided to go ahead with the page, because if nothing else the group would serve as a pole of attraction for those wanted a left candidate. That’s exactly what happened – with an enormous amount of early interest. It was obvious that we weren’t the only ones. Around the 20th of May, two activists, Chelley Ryan and Beck Barnes contacted us at the Red Labour page, saying that they were planning to write an open letter entitled ‘We want an anti-austerity leader’. They asked if we’d look at it and Naomi Fearon, a member of our organising group, suggested a 38 Degrees petition. She worked on it with me and we collectively decided on the right wording. When Chelley and Beck launched it, the petition got an incredible response. It was shared via Red Labour, but Chelley and Beck- along with Naomi’s help – also did an incredible job attracting interest through a wide range of networks. Within a few days, 5,000 people had signed the petition and then, just as it was about to be sent off to John Cryer, the chair of the PLP, we heard the amazing news that Jeremy Corbyn agreed to stand. We weren’t sure how this had happened, but later we heard that it was, ironically, John McDonnell who had played the biggest part in persuading Jeremy to stand.

The ‘little win’: the noms campaign

We raised a few virtual glasses to toast Jeremy Corbyn that evening. When the news filtered through (I believe it was Diane Abbott who broke the news first – through Twitter, of course), at first there was a sense of incredulity. For several weeks, we’d been desperately worried that the left would have no voice within the three month race. We’d even looked into the possibility of organising, at Owen Jones’ suggestion, ‘not the leadership’ rallies which discussed the alternatives to the ‘austerity lite’ narrative likely to be the theme of the leadership circus over the summer. When the news of Jeremy’s candidature came through, then, it felt like our first victory. Even if nothing came of it, we had contributed to laying down a marker – that the socialist left in the party hadn’t completely been routed, silenced.

The next morning I got a call from John McDonnell asking if I could co-ordinate the social media campaign to get Jeremy the nominations. Of course I agreed straight away – this was an incredible chance to play a small part in history. I discussed this with by fellow Durham Red Labourite Paul Simpson and we set up a little campaign headquarters in the People’s Bookshop in Durham and set to work on digging out articles, quotes and images of Jeremy. Both of us had cut our teeth with Red Labour and felt we understood the impact of really good, interactive and provocative social media content. Others across the country started helping out – MarshaJane Thompson and Max Shanly down in London, Adam White in Manchester and a host of others. We used the Red Labour page and our own contacts to kick start it, but the main thing was timing.  The Facebook page and Twitter account went live within 12 hours of the announcement – and that was crucial. That enabled us to take maximum advantage of the coverage of Corbyn’s surprise announcement and capitalise on the immediate surge in interest. Within 24 hours, we had a couple of thousand people on the page and had gained hundreds of followers on Twitter.

Once the initial building of the page and Twitter had been done, we determined to get to work on the MP nominations, one by one. Red Labour was a virtual campaign HQ. In amongst this burst of activity, we received a private message from a Labour councillor, which said simply #JezWeCan. He contacted us not long after asking us to not credit him with what we saw as a good pun at the time, and in the delay, another Red Labourite, Hazel Nolan, had tweeted the hashtag (apparently the very first to do so). We thought it was a good joke – a tongue in cheek reference to the Obama campaign slogan – but not for a second did we think it would become the political phrase of the summer. No matter, we posted a meme up on Red Labour with the #JezWeCan hashtag and a picture of Jeremy. That meme would later be turned into a t-shirt by MarshaJane and a load of grassroots Unison activists at Scottish Unison Conference. It was an electrifying buzz to find the left suddenly alive with creativity.

But there was less sexy work to get on with too. The Red Labour collective got to work preparing spreadsheets, we published email addresses and Twitter accounts, drew up lists and crossed names off the lists a matter of hours later. All the time, the possibilities were becoming narrower and narrower. Nevertheless, we carried on regardless – organising Twitter storms, petitions and mass letter writing campaigns. Of course, we didn’t realise how hard it would be, but a strange thing happened: the more resistant MPs seem to be, the more people seemed to want to get involved. People came out of nowhere and took responsibility for huge chunks of the campaign. At first, there was some apprehension – should we be taking a more centralised approach? But after deliberating for all of a few minutes, it became obvious that events had overtaken our plans – it was no longer ‘our’ campaign – it belonged to those who wanted to contribute. And this nominations campaign had become an issue of democracy.

The sum total of the online activity was just incredible – and relentless. This now was reaching far beyond our Red Labour group. Here came the Corbynistas! Some people gave over whole evenings to emailing everyone on the list. Others engaged their own MPs in lengthy debates over twitter. It was a genuinely spontaneous and collective moment. It was an intense week of activity. While we were organising the mass emailing and tweeting of MPs, a thousand activist flowers were blooming. One of the most significant was Stuart Wheeler’s change.com petition:  ‘We call on Labour MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn’, which gained over 7,500 signatures – which again was extensively shared on social media and featured in the press. Stuart, from St Blazeys in the South West, was known to us in Red Labour, but again, his petition was a perfect example of someone just getting off their backside and deciding that he was going to give the campaign his all. We weren’t going to bow down to the PLP and their accepted ways of doing things – the “common sense” which said that they knew best who should be on the ballot paper and how the debate should be framed. There was a real sense in which we were determined to have our voice heard, at last. And we did. That’s why, when the mainstream press decided that those nominations were ‘gifted’, it stuck in the craw. And it wasn’t true.

On that Monday lunchtime, on the 15th of June, we live tweeted the final hours of the nominations process. Sitting there, waiting for news from John McDonnell, refreshing the twitter account manically, was agony. I was personally quite confident that we’d done it – but I now realise that was partly wishful thinking: surely all that effort, everyone efforts couldn’t have been in vain? Well, they could quite easily have been. There was some cat and mouse games being played, and as John later revealed, a couple of MPs were waiting outside the lobby, not wanting to be the 35th MP to nominate, until they were virtually dragged in by John. When he quickly announced on his Facebook page that the threshold had been passed, we revealed the incredible news to the social media world instantly. If it had been a football stadium, the place would have erupted, such was the reaction. I sat there and stared at my computer screen and I’m not ashamed to say that I seriously welled up as the enormity of what we had done hit home. The PLP nominations were a massive hurdle – it had been their veto on real, party democracy and we’d beaten it.

The ‘big win’: the leadership election

So here we were. If getting a candidate was part one, and getting the nominations was part two, part three was the big one: how to get a 200-1 shot elected to the leadership of the Labour Party. This time, I took the initiative. I immediately contacted John and asked if I could carry on with the social media campaign role. It didn’t take long to wrap up. I contacted my PhD supervisors who were incredibly helpful – and I was granted a period of interruption in my studies to work on the campaign full-time. The decision to give me licence to develop an independent social media campaign alongside a Jeremy’s personal social media accounts proved to be one of the best decisions of the campaign. I enlisted the help of MarshaJane Thompson, who I knew mainly through the LRC and we quickly assembled a small group of volunteers. Right from the off, this group gave the campaign a massive shot in the arm – and it was constantly vibrant, creative, enthusiastic and absolutely relentless.

I’d argue too, that it was the driver for much of the most positive aspects of the campaign: getting across Jeremy’s central messages of respect and encouraging debate rather than a beauty contest; the popularisation of the policy interventions; pushing fundraising targets and encouraging engagement as volunteers, supporters and attendance at the huge events all over the country. Most importantly, it was able blunt some of the media attacks by relentlessly pushing a positive message and creating alternative sources of ‘news’ for our supporters (in a recent YouGov survey, 57% of Corbyn supporters stated that they saw social media as their main source for news for the campaign, as opposed to 38-41% for other candidates and 32% for the wider population)

I became more of a co-ordinator proper, asking the team to come up with memes, fishing out articles and quotes. In contrast to some of the other leadership campaigns, our social media campaign was completely organic and grassroots. We had assembled a team of activists around the left of the party: people who could design those memes, who understood Jeremy’s politics and who were in touch with the wider movement. There was deliberately no thematic line. It was creative and at times ad hoc, but it connected with people much better than the slick offerings of the other candidates. We had a constant supply of fantastic contributions from Andrew Fisher and the central policy team, and, gradually – a load of good news stories – not from the mainstream press, but from the website team; from those out with Jeremy at hustings all over the country; the enormous rallies that followed; the amazing volunteer operation run by Kat Fletcher and the massively professional phone bank operation co-ordinated by Alex Halligan.

This all fed into the next stage of the election campaign: the CLP nominations. This was being co-ordinated centrally via the ‘ground operations team’, but we used social media to not only raise awareness of the process, but also, crucially, to celebrate the successes. So when a CLP nominated Jeremy, they would get a little ‘thank you’ meme quickly produced by our design team. The response, especially on Twitter, was phenomenal. Throughout, the newly installed regional organisers, 12 strong, were running around, putting in the most incredible shifts to make sure we capitalised on this momentum and secured as many CLP nominations as possible – updating the regional Facebook pages when they could take time to draw breath. When the results started coming through, it was like an earthquake. This was so significant because we had expected to struggle amongst established party members. As those CLP nominations racked up, we realised that we’d underestimated our fellow party members. This was a genuine grassroots revival in the party. Of course, we could all claim we’d seen it coming and via Red Labour we’d always said it was possible, but nevertheless, this was incredible.

Organising ourselves around the phrase that would become emblematic of not just the social media campaign, but the campaign as a whole: #JezWeCan, the social media team – which was split over four cities from London to Durham – worked together in absolute, collective unity, mostly via a single Facebook thread. MarshaJane Thompson, my fellow co-ordinator,  was a fantastic ally throughout – totally reliable, she also managed the online shop which produced the #JezWeCan t-shirts, raised a ton of cash for the campaign and organised the huge Union Chapel fundraiser night in London. She carried the Twitter operation for much of the time, ably helped by James Doran in Darlington. I did most of my work from Durham, and when Marsha became officially part of the media strategy team down in London, the whole thing started really clicking. James did much of the Twitter grind of following accounts (even some which later proved not to be quite what they seemed at first sight). Paul Simpson, my colleague at the People’s Bookshop was one of the constants throughout, who built the presence of the Facebook campaign at the crucial stage before nominations and was relentless in publicising Jeremy’s proud history as an M.P.

Unison’s Andrew Berry was our eyes and ears for stories on the ground. The incredibly talented Leonora Partington gave us the most fantastic, fearless graphics – some of which were shared to millions. At times we were firing this stuff out at a rate of knots, so the help of Ruth Berry and Charley Allan was crucial in rebutting the nasty and cynical attacks from the traditional media. Jason Harris was the campaign’s brilliant photographer and captured both Jeremy and our events superbly, which helped so much when it came to producing the shareable graphics. Yannis Mendez’s videos were just brilliant – they really captured the diverse grassroots authenticity of the campaign and rightly received rapturous feedback. Finally, Jack Bond was the link between the social media team and the central campaign – a real team player who at one point drove through the night from London to deliver Durham Miners Gala leaflets, arriving at 3am. We worked so well together – with genuine respect, creativity and comradeship. Nobody even got upset over my pedantry about commas and colons.

The #JezWeCan social media campaign has been, by a long stretch, the biggest single campaign for an individual politician this country has ever seen. Sure, we had the raw material too. Jeremy was a dream candidate for the social media age: everything he said was clear, accessible and without jargon. Jeremy’s record could speak for itself, but he’d never had such a platform. Our Facebook page gained nearly 70,000 likes in three months, with our top post reaching 750,000 people. On a weekly basis, between 1.5 and 2 million people were seeing our Facebook posts (immediately following the election win, it topped 6 million). In terms of engagement (likes, shares and comments), the average weekly engagement was around the 200k mark, with a peak of 600k in late July, with another peak just after the result of 800,00. 18,000 people signed up to go to our virtual Facebook event ‘I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election’. Our output averaged about 10 posts a day, which over the three months will be close to 1000 posts. On Twitter, we gained 64,000 followers, nearly 250,000 mentions were made of the campaign on Twitter and our top tweet was retweeted 1,800 times. We posted a total of 4,100 tweets (including retweets).  Our most successful Twitter storm saw the campaign mentioned 22,500 times in just two hours, but other Twitter ‘events’ saw our campaign trending at various times throughout the summer. At the last televised hustings in Gateshead, our campaign had 69% of all Twitter mentions, with Cooper and Burnham on 14% and Liz Kendall on 3%. Our top embedded video was Owen Jones’ speech at the Glasgow rally, with 97.1k views and a reach of 291,000. We have also experimented with Instagram, which has a much younger demographic and is focused on sharing images, gaining 1430 followers in a quick time, more than ten times any other candidate.

That’s the campaign in numbers, but it’s about so much more than the numbers – it’s about the democratic possibilities which are opened up by this new medium and this extensive reach. It gives us leverage where previously there was very little – and it has been the generator for the campaign on the ground throughout the summer. The extraordinary attendances at rally meetings were in part generated by the online campaign, which laid the foundations for the huge appetite for Jeremy’s ideas and our policy discussions by making sure that Jeremy was constantly in the public eye, with quotes, selected highlights from articles, ‘unity’ statements, interviews and some superb videos which highlighted the grassroots movement as it was being built. All of this generated its own alternative media – which counteracted much of the negativity and bile being poured out from the mainstream media. More than that, it generated a real sense that this was a movement everyone could be involved in, discuss, interact with, get answers from (we dealt with hundreds if not thousands of individual messages and enquiries to the Facebook and Twitter pages). If people felt like actors in this campaign, rather than ‘consumers’ of it, a large part of that was down to our social media operation.

This is a massive and significant sea change in the way we do our politics. When the over whelming 59.5% vote came through on that historic Saturday at the QE II Conference Centre, we knew that hundreds of thousands were poised to celebrate on Facebook and Twitter. When the first round results were announced, a few audible gasps were heard in the hall, but not from the social media team. We released the #JezWeDid meme – and it was shared to half a million within the hour.

For me, social media now needs to be seen as an integral part of what happens next. Although we rightly have scepticism about the Obama administration, there’s no doubt that as a social media campaign, they are still the model (though we also have a new model now being created by Bernie Sanders’ campaign). What the Obama campaign did was quite radical. They allocated equal resources to their social media operation as they did to their traditional press operation. I think we need to embrace this new, democratic medium and do the same. It’s important to have articles in the Guardian, the Independent, to have positive news coverage wherever possible, but it won’t be enough. If we are serious about winning in 2020, we need to engage in a mass education campaign, making our policy messages accessible and popular. We need to launch the biggest ever social media counter narrative to the storm that is coming our way. We have learnt important lessons over the last three months and we’ve run a great social media campaign, but we’ve only scratched the surface. The social media campaign has been an incredible experience, not just for those involved officially, but for everyone who has made a contribution – small and big. But all of us know that it can be so much better, so much bigger and so much more effective – if we are bold enough to take up the challenge.

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See you, Jimmy: what the SLab collapse means for all of us.

jim-murphyLet’s face it. The overwhelming backdrop to the 2015 election wasn’t hope. It wasn’t even predominantly fear in the end, though that played a part. It was anger. And it was directed towards our party as much as towards a Coalition Government which had slashed and burnt its way through public services, privatised everything it could lay its hands on and showed a callous disregard for the vulnerable in our society. They were seen as the bad guys by many – probably a majority – but we definitely weren’t seen as the good guys, and by many of our former supporters, we were seen very much as part of the problem.

Now we can deflect blame for this. We can blame the naivety and selfishness of voters in large swathes of the South and Midlands in the betrayal of SNP switchers who have been suckered into supporting nationalism dressed up as social democracy. We can retreat to the comfort blanket of saying that we are fighting a losing battle against the twin forces of nationalism and individualism. Or we can quit this blame fest and try to understand our own failures. Why has this calamity (and let’s face it, we are in a crisis) happened? Why have we been overwhelmed in an explosion of anger towards the party we are members of?

Firstly, the anger towards the Labour Party is blowback from two decades of New Labourite politics. Particularly in Scotland, where the Scottish Labour Party was used as an incubator for the careers of many a Blairite politician. In so doing, the party machine also wrecked the internal life of the party north of the border, closing down democracy and evacuating the party of real, decent socialist and trade union activists. Scotland has blown first because it was the most extreme example, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this process hasn’t happened all over the UK. The election of Jim Murphy was the final straw, illustrating that the party hadn’t learnt the lessons of Better Together, and the scene was set for Thursday’s cataclysm.

Secondly, the anger is about Labour’s failure to challenge the austerity consensus. This obviously has a historic dimension to it. Blair’s governments entrenched the idea that redistribution and progressive taxation, aimed at the rich, was off the agenda. On this score, “One Nation Labour” continued in the same vein. For all the talk of tax avoidance and “everyone paying their fair share”, Ed Balls’ tightening noose around Labour’s economic policy and the disastrous decision to stick to Tory spending plans cemented the idea that they were all in the same club. It forced Labour into a cul-de-sac when it should have been shouting from the rooftops about the economic vandalism being perpetrated in the name of deficit reduction. It hasn’t just been the SNP who have benefitted from Labour’s cowardice on the economy, but the Greens – and even, in a bizarre, complex way, UKIP. Ed Miliband said that he was making a definite break from New Labour. In style, he did – but on questions of substance he really failed to. Where was the commitment to rail renationalisation, kicking the private sector out of the NHS altogether, or bringing schools back into local authority control? Until Labour rediscover this kind of radicalism, they will be vulnerable to a Scottish style implosion in the rest of the UK too.

Thirdly, what about us? Us socialists in the party? Surely it’s not our fault that our party was overtaken by careerist cuckoos and set the time bomb ticking? What could we have done? We tried our best, right? But look what they did to us we? We were powerless. Or so the story goes. Often, people ask why on earth we carry on in a party which is so wedded to neoliberalism? Wouldn’t two decades or more of failure to change the party indicate that it is a lost cause. Well, let’s go back to Scotland for a second. What on earth was going on while the Blairites were tearing down local democracy and imposing yes men and women? Where was the organisation, where was the united front with the unions to challenge the selection of those New Labour zealots in local parties? The answer is that too many people, good socialists went into hiding, too disillusioned to fight back or too divided to come together. A small band of hard core socialists were left to fight the good fight. It wasn’t enough – and we can see similar pattern all over the UK. If there’s any hope to be gleaned in these fairly dark days, is that the Labour left will learn those lessons, and come out of hiding to start the long task of rebuilding a party we can all be proud of. If that doesn’t happen, we can almost certainly say good bye to the Labour Party in its present form.

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Ding Ding: Round Two – My letter to A.

ed

Last week, I sent a letter to Ed Miliband, explaining my anger at his decision to pose with The Sun newspaper. As you can well imagine, I didn’t have high hopes of a personal reply. I know how these things work. I don’t have illusions of grandeur. I know I’m not really having a dialogue with Ed. I once wrote to Tony Benn and got a typed letter in reply. I wrote back and received a two page written letter in the post a few days later. But that was then, this is now. And that was Tony – he felt a responsibility to the movement to inspire young (and probably pretentious) socialists in the party. Ed isn’t and doesn’t.  True to form, he got a member of his office staff (A) to write a bland and insincere apology which seemed to imply that the only reason that I’d be offended by his actions would be if I came from Merseyside:

“Good afternoon,

Thank you for your email to Ed Miliband. My apologies for the delay in replying.

 Ed Miliband was promoting England’s bid to win the World Cup and is proud to do so. But he understands the anger that is felt towards The Sun over Hillsborough by many people in Merseyside and he is sorry to those who feel offended.

 Thank you again for taking the time ot get in touch.

 Regards,

 A Williams

Office of Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP”

The thrust of this reply, such as it is, is to treat Hillsborough as if it was a natural disaster – an earthquake or a flood – and that it’s the insensitivity of it all that upsets people. So that’s how the apology was framed – without real feeling, without an understanding of the real issues and absolutely statesmanlike – a real politician’s response. That’s all part of the process, of course. They teach you that at the school of the political elite (otherwise known as PPE at Oxford).

If I’m honest, I didn’t really want there to be a round two. I just wanted Ed to sleep on it, really think about what it was that members of his own party were so upset about and issue a decent apology to all, ending with a pledge never to do it again. I wanted Ed to address those people in his own party (those who he should have an affinity with and an understanding of) as a human – not as a statesman or a slick politician, just a fellow member of the party. The fact that he didn’t doesn’t surprise me – it’s the same pattern which has resulted in the debacle around Falkirk, the abstention on Workfare and the more recent support for a Welfare Cap. If One National Labour was a stick of rock, it would have “machine politics” running right through it, despite its rebranding “post-New Labour”.

Nevertheless, I decided to reply to A. Maybe he’d understand:

“Dear A,

Thanks for your letter. I don’t know when you’re next going to see Ed, but when you do, can you please relay the following information. Whilst I’m very grateful for the response, there are a few things that confuse me. There seems to be an assumption that I am from Merseyside. I’m not. As I stated in my letter, I am from Durham. Ed’s apology seems to be directed towards those directly affected by the Hillsborough tragedy on Merseyside. I don’t doubt that if you are from that part of the world, the sight of your party leader holding up a copy of that paper (which accused Liverpool fans of stealing from the dead amongst other things) is going to have a little extra resonance.

Let’s recall that front page, as it seems to have fallen off the radar last Tuesday:

“The Truth.

Some fans picked pockets of victims.

Some fans urinated on the brave cops

Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.”

Yes, if you have any connection with Liverpool FC, it will feel like an extra kick in the guts. The fact that Ed, as party leader, didn’t have the relatives of the 96 at the forefront of his mind when he held up that sorry excuse for a paper, will feel like an extra betrayal.

However, let’s not be confused. We have a longstanding tradition – an attitude you might say – in the labour movement. It’s called solidarity. An injury to one is an injury to all. Hillsborough is not just about Merseyside, it is an affront to all members of the labour movement, the Labour Party and all who believe in decency and justice throughout the UK. So to promote the Sun, for whatever reason, isn’t just an affront to Merseyside – it’s an insult to people right across our movement. Equally, any apology, if it’s heartfelt and genuine, should be directed to Labour supporters right across the movement. It’s not ok to promote the Sun – and not just because of Hillsborough, but also because of their reporting of the Miners’ Strike and branding the Miners “The Enemy Within” – culminating in Orgreave; because of the phone tapping scandal and Milly Dowler; because of the blatant sexism of Page Three; because of their consistent hatred for anything the Labour Party have done to alleviate poverty and champion equality. And, that, is very much just for starters.

The Sun, as you know, stands against everything the Labour movement stands for: solidarity, collectivism, redistribution, justice and equality. You don’t have to be one of its victims to feel a deep seated resentment towards The Sun and a tangible sense of betrayal in seeing the leader of your party casually promoting it as if none of this has entered his mind. It was a shameful moment, which should never be repeated. I hope Ed now understands this. We’ll probably never know – after all, we are just party members right? We’re here to stump up our fees, to cheer-lead, to deliver leaflets and to otherwise keep quiet. Why should we expect our leader to reflect our values, our causes and our principles? We’re only “meat in the room”. Ok, we can carry on with that charade – but one day in the not too distant future, that situation, that relationship,  is going to blow up in our faces. And then, it will be too late.

Yours, with a lingering sense of disenchantment,

Ben Sellers

City of Durham CLP”

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Why we need a Red Labour alternative

829709500_85c84686c6_bA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled ‘Sleepwalking in the Labour Party’: about the failure of the left in the party to get ourselves organised in the context of the long hegemony of the right in the party and in the face of a Blairite retrenchment in “One Nation Labour”. The article was meant as a provocation – to ask individual party members:

“If you’re not in the party to cause trouble, considering its trajectory for the last 15 years, what are you in it for?”

The reaction was interesting. The vast majority of comments were supportive. That was the easy bit. We can hardly fail to agree on what is wrong. However, a few people asked the more pertinent questions, which were “How?”, “What now?” and “What can I do?” That article didn’t seek to answer those questions, or map out a plan of action. I want to start the task of doing that now.

Firstly, although the article was an appeal to individual responsibility for the situation we’re in, the answers can only ever be collective. Like anything else in the Labour movement, it has to be rooted in collective experience and collective solutions. I believe that some of the answers lie exactly in some of those problems we’ve experienced both as a party and a left in the party. Specifically: education; democracy and organisation. The first one is the lack of education in the party. When I say education, I don’t mean in a formal sense, but informally, through discussion in party meetings. This has all but gone – and it is a massive vacuum. Secondly, the Blairite “revolution” in the party had at its heart the closing down of democracy in the party. Blair and his friends needed this to secure their “New Labour” project. This is a clear block on any movement which seeks to change the party. Thirdly – while the right wing of the party, and the Progress wing specifically, have been extremely well organised, not surprisingly, considering the financial resources at their disposal courtesy of Lord Sainsbury, the left in the party have been fragmented, disorganised and ineffective at getting their message across and winning positions in the party.

This is not the sum of everything that is wrong in the party – far from it, unfortunately – but those three areas (education, democracy and organising) might come together in a project that attempts to grab some power back for members. A few of us on the left of the party, involved in the Red Labour Facebook group, have been talking about this for some time. That involvement has led us to the question: should there be a Red Labour in the real world? It isn’t (and never has been) a case of trying to replace anything else on the left of the party, but to gather forces and organise them with an explicit focus on the Labour Party – to give a coherence and confidence to attempts to present an alternative to “New Labour lite”. At present, there are other positive things going on in the party – the Defend the Link campaign, the Labour Assembly Against Austerity, Unite’s engagement in party selections, the continuing efforts of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy to name a few, which will hopefully slot together with Red Labour in a virtuous cycle as opposed to the vicious cycle we’ve been trapped in for the past decade or more.

The Red Labour Facebook page began its life just over two years ago, in June 2011. In a couple of years of existence, it has grown to become the largest Facebook group on the left of the Labour Party. At the time of writing, the Red Labour page is ‘liked’ by (as in followed by) 4,693 people. Compared to other broadly Labour-left orientated groups, it is now the largest by quite some distance:

  • Red Labour 4,693 likes
  • Fabian Society 3,147 likes
  • Compass 1,648 members
  • Labour Left 1,225 likes
  • Left Futures 1,180 likes
  • LRC 667 likes
  • CLPD 198 likes

Granted, we’ve still got some way to go before hitting the Labour Party’s 147,675 likes, but we’ve gained nearly 2,000 followers in the last 2-3 months, so who knows what’s possible? What is significant too, is the amount of ‘buzz’ that there is around Red Labour. At the time of writing, 14,389 people were “talking” about Red Labour on Facebook (i.e. interacting in some way with the group). This compares to the 6,124 talking about the Labour Party on Facebook.

Red Labour creates online discussion about Labour movement politics. We have aimed to do so in lively and at times controversial ways. It has proved an enormously successful formula over the last two years. In the last six months, particularly, it’s been apparent that we are sitting on a phenomenon. We now regularly get 100 likes and 200 shares of our statuses, some reaching over 100,000 people on Facebook. A recent post quoting Keir Hardie on the arrival of the royal baby in 1894 reached 181,568 people and attracted 14,970 likes, comments or shares. Our interaction with those people who have liked the page grows on a daily basis.

About six months ago, in this context, we started assessing the impact of the page politically. We looked at the state of the Labour left and felt that it should be making the sort of progress that we were online. While all the time bearing in mind the difference between social media political activity and that in the movement itself, we nevertheless started to wonder about the huge void that there was for socialist education, discussion and debate in the party and how Red Labour might be able to plug that gap and help build the left in the party more practically. Over the last few months have been developing this idea while steadily building its facebook (and now twitter) presence. It seems to us that there is a desperate need for a project that takes the Red Labour approach to Labour members and supporters in different parts of the country, offering an alternative not only to austerity, but one that boldly and confidently challenges the narrowing of the political agenda in the Labour Party – offering radical alternatives and allowing members to develop and voice those alternatives in independent “Red Labour” fora. This would not be about building a membership organisation, it would be about creating forums for socialist alternatives in the party and organising the Labour left specifically.

Red Labour is a project in the making. It is not the finished article and will require building over months and years. Although it is a long term project, with education at its heart, there is now an urgency caused by the ‘One Nation Labour’s backsliding towards Blairism. The last six months have seen a clear change in the leadership under Ed Miliband as the 2015 election comes into view – and it is bad, rather than good news for the left as New Labour retrenchment gathers pace. What has also been noticeable, however, is the beginnings of a resistance in the party. We should all be wary of overplaying this, but it seems there is the start of a groundswell of anti-austerity sentiment amongst sections of the party – and not just amongst its union affiliates. This has been fuelled in particular by the abstention on workfare sanctions, the fudging of the opposition to the Bedroom Tax and most recently, the seven day ‘Wonga’ extension for benefits claimants.

A week or so ago, we decided to put that idea to our Facebook followers, hardly expecting the incredible response we got. The question was:

If Red Labour were to move into the real world, to start to organise within the Party and to hold public meetings based around issues that ordinary people faced, would you support it? Like if you would, and also comment if this interests you.”

In under 12 hours, we received 449 ‘likes’ and 115 comments, 90% of which were wholly positive. Here are some of the typical responses

  • “Absolutely. I want my Labour party back out of the clutches of the current lot in charge”
  • “Yes this would bring me back to Labour”
  • “Yes, definitely! Apart from anything I’d feel a lot happier going along to, and speaking up at, meetings of my local party and university Labour Club knowing there was an organised group and others around who have similar views of what politics should be about. Progress desperately need an organised opposition, especially so in universities etc. where the trade union connection isn’t particularly strong”
  • “I was at Tolpuddle last weekend and heard many similar sentiments; we need to rid ourselves of public school career politicians greedy for personal power. We need discussion groups to establish fundamental principles (remember them?) & then, organised, we need to reclaim OUR party. Hell yes I’m in.”

Even taking into account the obvious caveats about online activism, the response shows that there is a clear desire amongst party members (and those who have recently left) for a clear, socialist alternative in the party, popularly expressed and demanding a voice for our members. It ties in with similar sentiments echoed in the affiliated trade unions over recent months.

Practically speaking, what we have talked about is piloting a few Red Labour meetings around the country, with a broad brief to challenge both Progress and Blue Labour – as well as a developing critique Ed’s One Nation re-branding of New Labour. The real development of the project would be in the regional meetings which would come quickly after any launch. Meetings would initially be planned in areas where we feel we have some base. Each series of meetings would have policy, campaigning and organising outcomes. We could theme them for maximum impact nationally – e.g. having meetings on “free schools”, “defending the welfare state” or “tax avoidance” in several locations over a period of two week, with local media coverage – as well as all the usual social media. The emphasis would be on giving Labour Party members a voice again, gradually building confidence that we could effect change in the party.

In some ways the Red Labour name is a direct challenge to the Purple and Blue variants and therefore would have a wide appeal. This defines our approach, in a sense. The Red Labour project is based on a belief that there are thousands of Labour members and supporters out there who believe similar things to us or can be convinced by a strong, bold challenge to New Labour lite. This would not be about bringing together the 57 varieties of the left, however – it would be focused on changing the Labour Party solely. It wouldn’t be set up to compete with any group on the Labour left, but act as an umbrella and work on common campaigns and policy interventions. It would also be about engaging those five million mainly working class voters who have stopped supporting the party since 1997 and those members who have left the party in despair, but are equally despairing of the left outside the party.

It is also about organising the left in the party better – in order to challenge the bureaucratic control of the right. We would hope to attract support from the unions, whilst acknowledging that the success of the Red Labour facebook page has been based on its independent nature – and it will be important to retain this in “the real world”. Most importantly, the point of this would be that it would be grassroots-based. It would not be encumbered by the committee structure, as it would be more of a forum for our socialist views rather than a membership organisation. Red Labour would have supporters, people who engaged and contributed to the project at various levels, rather than members. Undoubtedly, there are other attempts to do similar things – e.g. on a broader scale with Unite or the Labour Assembly Against Austerity – and we see this as a positive not a negative. It shows that people are starting to stand up and are planning some kind of resistance – at last. We’d welcome joint working, while at the same time believing that Red Labour has both a distinctive approach and longevity. There is a massive leap from where we are now to a fully functioning, confident and effective left in the party. Obviously, too, there is a long way to go with the Red Labour project, but if the latter can support the former, it has got to be worth our time and effort. Please support us, help us, but most importantly, join us.

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Even on the Bedroom Tax, the Labour leadership is scared of its own shadow

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All over the country, people will take to the streets today to protest against the Bedroom Tax. Battling against a government policy which targets a vulnerable minority, facing down apathy (not so much towards the cause, but the idea that we can do anything about it) a genuine, grassroots alliance has emerged. The campaign has been co-ordinated by those directly affected by the tax, local community campaigners and disability rights groups. It has brought different political strands together, with ordinary Labour Party activists joining with community activists in a variety of parties or none at all.

In a parallel universe, Labour Party members have been treated to Ed Miliband’s passion for a better politics (#betterpolitics), based on a bottom up, mass movement. This week’s instalment:

“I want to build a stronger Labour Party – a mass movement that can take on the Tories in 2015 and win – and I want you to be a part of this…I’ve always said change in our country must come from the bottom up, that politics is too important to be left only to politicians. That goes for our party too.”

It sounds like Ed Miliband and the Labour Party would want to be involved in the Bedroom Tax campaign, then. Not so much. One Nation Labour – and I mean by that, the leadership, our Parliamentary and local representatives – will be all but absent from this particular national, “mass movement”. Of course, there will be a few honourable exceptions. Today, Labour councillor David Stockdale will address the rally in Newcastle and in the North East more generally, people like Grahame Morris and the two Ians, Lavery and Mearns have been openly supportive of the demonstrations – but in a sense, that just goes to prove the rule. As was the case with Bedroom Tax protests earlier in the year, local party members will join these protests in the thousands, but without any official sanction from the party hierarchy.

I was involved in organising those earlier, fantastically well attended protests in March of this year. In Durham we had 300 people who came along to our protest in the Market Place. That might not sound like that many, but believe me, in Durham that is a very significant protest. It is no coincidence that since, we have had a number of other successful protests, stalls and events which have really lifted the political mood in previously sleepy Durham, including a 230-strong People’s Assembly just a couple of weeks ago. There was an awkward moment in the run up to the Durham protest when the organisers had to “un-invite” Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman to speak at the protest when it emerged that she had given an interview apparently supporting the Bedroom Tax in principle, while not in practice. After debating the matter for a while, we looked at the title of the protest (Durham Says No to the Bedroom Tax) and our banners and sent her a very politely worded “thanks, but no thanks”. This was perplexing, because Helen had been one of the best MPs in condemning the tax, even recording a video diary on it, but this was confusion at a national level being played out at a local level.  As it turned out, that was just the beginning.

Watching the Bedroom Tax campaign from their Westminster bubble, the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party has skulked in the background. Like an uninvited kid at a party, it has hidden in the corners in the hope that it will still be able to get a party bag at the end. Because, ladies and gentlemen  – unbelievably – the Shadow Front Bench still haven’t committed to scrapping the Bedroom Tax. I’ll say that again, because there does seem to be some confusion. The Labour Party leadership has said that the Bedroom Tax is cruel, inhumane, devastating to communities, unworkable. All manner of ink has been spilled to condemn it…but the Party itself has not found itself able to commit to scrapping the Bedroom Tax in Government. Both Eds – Miliband and Balls – even came to the Labour Party National Executive Committee meeting to say as much.

Why? The most unpopular piece of Government legislation since the Poll Tax; a tax that turns communities and people’s lives upside down; a tax that specifically targets those least able to deal with that upheaval and a tax that aims to divide communities; a tax that has seen thousands of the party’s own supporters out on the streets to demand an end to it  – but the Labour Party in Parliament refuses to commit itself to ridding us of this evil.

How is this possible? Well, many reasons are proffered, but the overriding one is of “economically credibility”. Ed Balls has contended that the party cannot commit to scrapping the tax which we all agree is both vicious and unworkable because it will be an economic “hostage to fortune”. The Tories will get their calculators out and add that to the “Labour spending bombshell”.  At the same time, they are briefing their own side (a message sent down through the Labour Party grapevine, the “loyalist” networks) that it’s ok, trust us…the Bedroom Tax will go – once we’re in Government. The message to Labour activists is – protest on your own, but come along to our #labourdoorstep sessions and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Of course, this is drivel. One thing has not changed since the Blair heyday – and that is the way that the party spins, even to its own members. The real reason why Balls and co will not commit to scrapping the Bedroom Tax is that they are (a) running scared of the tabloid press, who they fear will brand them “the scroungers friend” and (b) that they are unwilling to pose any alternative to the Coalition’s spending plans, wedded as they are to the death grip of austerity. If there is any further illustration needed of the political bankruptcy of this policy, it is Labour’s attitude to the Bedroom Tax. It is like having an open goal, shinning the ball and hitting the corner flag. Ed talks the talk on building a mass party, but it is literally an impossibility to do that while you are wedded to neo-liberal economic dogma. As Jim Royle would say, #betterpoliticsmyarse

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Sleepwalking in the Labour Party

@zx_475@zy_285I know those to the left of me will snort, but I genuinely think there are plenty of good people left in the Labour Party. I’d go further than that. Many of those people sincerely believe in socialist values and a different way of organising society. Most of them were drawn to the party and joined because they believed in those values and because they wanted to turn the things they believed into action. Equally, most of them understand how illogical it is to be basing our policies on Tory spending plans and talking about “responsible capitalism” at a time when the country is in crisis because of austerity and the pillars of capitalism itself are coming tumbling down.

The problem is, however, that these good people seem to believe in magic. That could be the only explanation for the fact that people will voice these views over the dinner table, in pubs and (as Owen Jones has said repeatedly said, by shouting at the telly) and yet do precisely nothing to attempt to change the party into one they could be proud of; one that reflects their values, however imperfectly. Granted, we are slowly moving from a more deeply entrenched quietism to a more public discontent, but still people are not convinced of the need to take action, to take responsibility. What I’ve heard time and time again over what has been a magnificent few months (including the Bedroom Tax Protests, the Miners Gala and the People’s Assembly) is that people, and that includes ordinary Labour members, want a Party leadership that stands up for working people and their families with the same determination that the trade unions today (and the mining unions in the past) have stood up for their members. There is huge frustration at our party representatives who have failed in their basic duty – to represent their communities and the membership views.

Now, I understand that people are demoralised, that they have been defeated again and again by the right of our party. The right and centre of the party seem to have all the cards – the resources, the media, the patronage – while we have been patted on the head and told to smile and wave. The thing is, we’re not little children. Many of us are confident, forceful people who if they were treated like this by their employer, would fight back with a vengeance. So why do we voluntarily submit to being mere cheerleaders in a party that was supposed to be for us, that was set up with the express intention of representing us (working people, the trade unions and the wider communities they come from)?

Tony Blair cemented this idea of going above the heads of the members to appeal to the nation. It was not just anti-democratic, it was a tactic to silence the party membership. We are being served more of the same with One Nation Labour. It’s a ridiculous idea that a party formed by the unions could borrow the clothes of One Nation Toryism. It’s the old New Labour spin – but which of us were consulted? What role did the party members have in this? None at all – it was just a marketing gimmick – like a scene from the Thick of It – and now were stuck with a new branding;  a New Labour lite with a few Union Jack’s thrown in. Smile and wave, guys, smile and wave.

There has been much talk over the last decade about the alienation of the vast majority of working class people from the workings of an increasingly remote political class, operating via the machinations of professionals and with little reference to those people’s real lives. What we need to acknowledge is that this alienation, this disengagement has taken place within the Labour Party too. We have become bystanders in our own party and let the professionals take over – at a local as well as national level. For us, party politics has become a spectators sport. We’ve become too timid to criticise our representatives, because “they work very hard, you know” and “rocking the boat only helps the Tories, you know”. Where does this sort of deference, this quietism end? Well, we know don’t we, because we’ve already been there? Back with  Blair and New Labour.

I realise that I’m talking to a minority here, both in terms of the party membership and the wider left, but I just don’t think it’s an insignificant minority. We talk ourselves down, self-censor our distinct political perspective. There are good reasons for this. Our voices are drowned out on both sides. To the right of us, the right and centre of the party have tight control of the messages given out by the party. They officially tell our story. On the left, we are assailed by the righteous indignation of the outside left, who blame us for that story which we have little or no control over. This has reached its apogee in a relatively new narrative on the so called “revolutionary left” – that Labour socialists provide “left cover” for the austerity-friendly Labour. Of course, this narrative isn’t new at all – it was the tactic employed by the Communist Party during its “Class Against Class” period of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Only the rise of fascism ended this ultra leftist attitude to the Labour left. It wrongly conflates the party left with the leadership and the PLP – which are in most respects polar opposites. Nevertheless it is difficult not to sound apologetic about your membership of the party when being tarred in this way on a daily basis. However (and this is the crucial bit) we need to break out if this defeatism – unless we want to continue to live in this prison created by our political adversaries on both sides.

It’s clear that too many people on the left of the party are paper members only, cowed by defeats, beaten down by the hegemony of the right and the depoliticisation at a local party level – and finally convinced by the leadership who tell them to accept that there is no alternative. Of course, many good socialists have left and that has hit us hard, but for those of us still in the party, is it not time to question the practical usefulness of such membership? In other words, if you’re not in the party to “cause trouble” (i.e ask the questions that need to be asked and organise to win our positions in the party) – considering its trajectory for the last 15 years – what are you in it for?

Rather than moaning in public meetings and amongst comrades, we really need to take some responsibility for this party of ours. It’s time for a new kind of left in the party. One that understands the challenge of the likes of Progress and organises itself to take on those forces; one that tries to mobilise the thousands in the party who have stayed quiet in the face of the Blairite onslaught, and one that takes seriously the task of democratising the party again – even of it means upsetting a few people on the way. One that is less apologetic and more decisive. We either attempt to reclaim the party or we don’t. We either try to claim it for the members or we don’t. We’re either cheerleaders for One Nation Labour or were not, but lets not pretend we haven’t got a choice. We have, it’s just that we’ve been sleepwalking for too long.

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Over on Channel Twitter…the Über Blairites gather for #pac13

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By now, you should know who Progress are. For those of us in the Labour Party unfortunate enough to have been engaged in ideological warfare with the Blairite pressure group, the battle lines are clear. However, for the uninitiated, it’s by no means so obvious. Jon Lansman did an excellent job on the Left Futures blog in summarising their “project” back in 2011. Not long after that, in February 2012, Progress were dealt a seemingly knockout blow when a 20 page dossier was circulated amongst Constituency Labour Parties, calling for an enquiry into their activities, funding and attacks on Ed Miliband’s leadership. Since then, they have been denounced by union leaders and been the subject of much scorn amongst ordinary union members. However, they weren’t to be deflected either by the report or by the increased scrutiny of their activities and merrily carried on as if nothing had happened.

The people involved in Progress are not stupid, however. They are fully aware of the unpopularity of much of their core programme and their ideological framework. They’re equally aware of how few Labour members actually want to continue or resurrect the New Labour project, so they blur the lines between their Blairite values and Labour loyalism. They do this with the sophistry of language. Nobody can miss the fact that their name, Progress, is a misnomer, but listen to the way they describe themselves:

“Progress is the New Labour pressure group which aims to promote a radical and progressive politics for the 21st century”

Impressive stuff, but what could it possibly mean?

Well, let’s see. Would an organisation set up (in 1996) by Paul Richards, Liam Byrne and Derek Draper really be interested in developing a radical and progressive politics, unless you skew the meaning of those words beyond recognition?

In the introduction to their ‘Purple Papers’, tantalizingly subtitled ‘Real Change for Britain, Real Choices for Labour’, we have this:

“We seek to discuss, develop and advance the means to create a more free, equal and democratic Britain, which plays an active role in Europe and the wider the world. Diverse and inclusive, we work to improve the level and quality of debate both within the Labour party, and between the party and the wider progressive community.”

If you were a teacher, you would simply have to get your big red pen out and scrawl all over it: “define this”, “don’t waffle” and “and….”

I thought it would be an interesting and possibly comical exercise to read between the lines of the excited Progress twitterati as they gathered for their Annual Conference last Saturday, the 11th of May, at Congress House in London. For full comedic effect, imagine that this is an episode of ‘The Thick of It’. You never know, I thought, they may even let their guard down and let us in to the (purple) heart of darkness, if only for a second or two:

Early doors, and new Progress MP Steve Reed, fresh from winning the Croydon by election, seems pretty excited about cutting, sorry, I mean reforming public services:

@SteveReedMP Looking forward to @progressonline conference today – will be speaking about reforming public services by empowering users #pac13

Progress die-hards always use very positive sounding phrases like “empowering users” when we all know that they mean outsource, privatise, sell off and take away people’s universal rights to free health care, welfare etc.

The amount of times a “Labour Majority” is mentioned is truly astonishing. Why bother? Surely it’s pretty vacuous to go on about a “Campaign for a Labour Majority”? What’s the alternative position? A “Campaign for a Labour Minority”? However, you see, Progress are like those awful managers who think that we’ll all be impressed by their jargonising. Of course, it’s also important for Progress to project the image that they are the hardest working, most loyal part of the party (unlike those lefties). What would we do without them? I think the hashtag from Stephen Twigg may have been gilding the lily a little though:

@StephenTwigg Heading to #pac13 to hear @Ed_Miliband & speak in closing plenary to promote Campaign for a Labour Majority http://prog.rs/53j  #LabMaj

No populist, rightwing-sounding policy must ever be off the agenda – especially “the anti social behaviour agenda” (TM Hazel Blears). Conjure up images of lager swilling yoofs as much as you possibly can. Apologies from Gloria De Piero’s spelling by the way. I blame the parents:

@GloriaDePieroMP Off to #pac13 to listen to Ed Miliband. Afterwards ill be talking about why the anti social behaviour agenda is crucial to Labour’s success

And Richard Angell, who has done much to build up the organisation from a collection of Blairite MPs and councillors to, well, a collection of Blairite MPs and counillors, loves this one from Ed – straight out of the Progress Bible.:

@RichardAngell No issue can be a ‘no go’ area for Labour. If the voters are talking about it, Labour is talking about it’ says @Ed_Miliband #pac13

No no go areas is a mantra for the average Progressite and it of course has the added benefit that it can be used as a catch all for any anti-immigrant, anti-welfare rhetoric:

Of course, Tory switchers are manna from heaven for the true believers. We must reassure them, the story goes. We must not challenge middle England. Repeat ad naseum (check out the hashtag, making another appearance):

@FelicitySlater Peter Kellner: We need to convince those Tory to UKIP switchers tht they have nothing to fear from an Ed Miliband premiership #pac13 #labmaj

Even John Denham gets in on the act. Prog pluralism, he says:

@JohnDenhamMP Real progressive change depends on active support of millions of people not all of whom vote for the same party  Prog pluralism. #pac13

However, is that the mask finally slipping? Yes, we want a #LabMaj, but let’s face it, we need the Lib Dems and the Tory switchers to scare the left in the party a lot more.

And just in case you thought this was about politics and an agenda to push the party back to a discredited Blairism, it isn’t. It’s a technical thing about credibility (Read: cut hard and cut fast):

@owenalunjohn Bang on from @andrew_harrop. It’s not about how left or right we go, it’s about how credible we are #pac13

Sorry, I meant “realistic spending”:

@JoshNewlove Impressed by @PCollinsTimes as always. Vital words on realistic spending met with indicative policies based on resources available. #pac13

Indicative policies, by the way, are ones that don’t really exist in the run up to the election, or at party conference, but are made up on the hoof by Special Advisers linked to Progress once in Government. Thank the Sun Tanned One for that!

This one is a real treat for all of our Newcastle based readers:

@Joe_Dromey Just heard from @nick_forbes, leader of Newcastle at #Pac13. Sounds like great things going on there. He’s one to watch

Yep, great things are happening in Newcastle. Great things, like closing libraries, youth services & swimming pools. ‘One to watch’ in the next safe selection in the North East, I would presume. With a record like that, what could possibly go wrong for speed boat enthusiast Forbes?

Ed Miliband is politely tolerated and whatever Blairite treasure can be dredged from the whole One Nation thing is pounced upon, but the real excitement is reserved for the entrance of the Dark Lord, Peter Mandelson. Stephen Bush even tells us (the whole darn Twitter universe) how we feel about the man:

 ‏@stephenkb I love Mandy – who doesn’t?

Mandy’s opening remarks occasions one of my favourite tweets from the whole of the Progress conference. What makes it even more beautiful is that it was tweeted by the official ProgressOnline account and that it was retweeted by 5, presumably sentient, adults. Genius:

@ProgressOnline ‏Peter Mandelson: we shd simply aim to win outright in 2015 #pac13

Delving into the murky world of Progress should come with a health warning. If this is what they’re saying on their iPhone’s to millions, imagine what they are saying in Pret a Manger! It’s not all bad, though. Just by searching the #pac13 hashtag, you do come across some healthy cynicism about the management double-speak of Progress. This one is my favourite, only let down by the fact that the offending statement is not attributed to anyone:

@SohoPolitico “@ChrisMasonBBC: Where else but at a political conference could you hear the phrase ‘proofing our narrative’?? #pac13” <In hell, maybe?

And on that bombshell…

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