Young Labour’s Progress

Conrad Landin

At the 1993 Labour Conference, a young delegate called Tom Watson proposed a motion to establish a new youth wing for the party: Young Labour. It would replace the Labour Party Young Socialists, which had long been dominated by the Trotskyist Militant tendency. New Young Labour would be loyal to the leadership.

Twenty years on, the youth wing is still dominated by the playing-it-safe brigade. I was elected to the Young Labour national committee last year. At a meeting last month, I tabled a motion on ‘defending the right to protest’. After we had discussed it, one of my colleagues proposed that ‘the motion should not be discussed’. The majority then rejected it on the grounds that matters of policy should only be raised at Young Labour’s biennial policy conference. At the previous meeting in October, a motion opposing the Royal Mail privatisation was blocked for the same reason, even though it echoed a vote passed unanimously at the Labour Party Conference that month.

Many of Young Labour’s leading lights are members of Progress, the self-described ‘New Labour pressure group’ chaired by Andrew Adonis. Set up in 1996, it is an ‘independent organisation of Labour party members’ which ‘aims to promote a radical and progressive politics for the 21st century’. Since the 2010 election, it has made repeated calls for Labour to embrace ‘economic credibility’, which sounds suspiciously like a by-word for capitulation to Tory spending cuts.

Progress’s most generous donor is David Sainsbury, who provides the organisation with £260,000 a year (two-thirds of its income). He stopped giving money to Labour after Ed Miliband became leader. Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB union, called for Progress to be ‘outlawed’, describing the group as a ‘party within a party’. Progress rejected the label; some of its members even said it was ‘only a magazine’, the defence used by Militant when Neil Kinnock moved to expel it.

The Young Labour chair, Simon Darvill, and national executive youth rep, Bex Bailey, have written for the Progress website and spoken at the group’s rallies and events. In August, the three full-time officers of Labour Students, who sit on the Young Labour committee, guest edited the Progress website.

According to Tom Watson, Tony Blair only allowed a new pressure group to be established ‘on the express condition that Progress centred itself around the party leader and was not in any way to be seen as, or develop into, a faction’. But that’s what it now is: it frequently runs slates of candidates in internal elections, such as for Labour’s national executive. It has also attacked Ed Miliband’s leadership and published a cover story in 2012 casting doubt on Ken Livingstone’s ability to win the mayoralty – the party’s biggest electoral test that year. Miliband has made tackling corporate ‘vested interests’ a major theme of his leadership; Michael Meacher has described Progress as a ‘classic example’ of ‘the intrusion of corporate funding into modern politics on a dominant scale’.


  • 9 January 2014 at 1:43pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    some of its members even said it was ‘only a magazine’, the defence used by Militant when Neil Kinnock moved to expel it

    These dots don't take a lot of joining, do they?

  • 9 January 2014 at 6:57pm
    Theo_Blackwell says:
    Well done on your election.

    (Deep breath) so if Progress is like Militant, who are the Derek Hattons here seeking to bring back Tony for a 4th term? IMO, and I am a member of Progress, I don't see many about - and I certainly don't get instructions beamed through into my implants - but occasionally I go along to a talk if its interesting.

    Also, don't you think at 'Blairite' is a term of abuse these days in the Party - and that calling people 'Blairite' (whether they are Progress or not) minimises their chances of internal selection as an MP or MEP? I've certainly seen ambitious people 'bat left' and use that term for their own personal advantage in selections, i.e. to smear their opponents with all manner of ill when some weren't even of voting age when Blair was actually in power. I think we need a reality check when you see a Labour Student of 19, for example, get accused of 'supporting the War' for being a member of Progress.

    In 1997 when I worked in Parliament I recall tribal Blairites distastefully using the word 'Trot' to describe anyone who wasn't a fellow traveller, even soft or center left. These days rhetoric from those who use the term 'Blairite' against anyone arguing that Labour did some good between 1997-2010 is similarly unhelpful and doesn't get us anywhere. (There were also other Blairites with a more interesting past - lost on this history seems to be the strong ex-Euro-communist influence on Blair's groups thinking around at the time).

    Creating phantom 'Blairites' armies today is more of a reflection of the internal politics of big unions, whose NECs over the years (from mid 1990s) became vulnerable to the determined 'rank-and-file' strategy developed by the SWP and other far left groups who concentrated on winning unions branches and internal elections. This gradually saw cohorts of far left gain power at senior levels, by focusing their activities on major unions rather than political parties - and creating pressure to disaffiliate from the Labour party and fund other ones and these created strong internal tensions which union leaderships are still fighting to resolve. One way of doing this is to reveal an enemy you can campaign against - hence 'Blairites' under the bed and the myth of Progress.

    Basically, we need some more recognition that the Party has two wings - which it needs both to fly - and a head.

    • 10 January 2014 at 10:28am
      Claude Lorrain says: @ Theo_Blackwell
      There's no head (in the proper sense) anywhere (institutionally) in the Labour Parry - in its place is a cold calculating machine working out how best to integrate the pursuit of personal advantage, winning elections, protecting elite power, and managing/controlling the demos.

    • 14 January 2014 at 11:25pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Theo_Blackwell
      Just on the Eurocommunist point - there really wasn't anything 'left' about the Euro wing of the CPGB by the time the party folded into Democratic Left & its smaller successors. (I remember seeing the Dem Left making a rare public appearance in the form of a small campaign for PR - at a time and in a place (Manchester) when a strong and coherent Left opposition to a faltering Tory government already existed in the form of the local Labour Party. Really not helpful.)

      Personally I noted the presence of old Communists in the Blairite fanbase - and their fierce commitment to something called realism - as early as May 1997. Here's a quote from something I wrote at the time:

      Curiously, among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. ... Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country. Labour can then re-emerge as the party of a cool-headed, unillusioned managerialism: it shares all the Tories’ basic presuppositions, but without their feverish ideological baggage.

      I don't think I was far out.

  • 9 January 2014 at 9:12pm
    Claude Lorrain says:
    Why did you join Young Labour young Conrad?