You may be aware, vaguely, of recent tensions in the Labour party over a motion passed at GMB conference attacking the right-of-the-left group Progress, and the remark by the GMB General Secretary, Paul Kenny, that a motion was being prepared in some quiet corner of the Labour movement to "effectively outlaw" Progress from the Labour party.
There is a mordant humour to this sort of internal squabble. It seems somewhat odd for affiliates to the Labour party to discuss outlawing an organisation shortly after the Labour leader praised it. Indeed, the first e-mail I got after hearing the news about the GMB motion was an invite to hear that well known Blairite Ultra factionalist, Harriet Harman, speak at a Progress event.
There are other delicious ironies too. Ed Miliband recently appointed the Progress Chair Andrew Adonis to advise Labour's policy review on industry. Paul Kenny and the GMB will, naturally, play a big role in that debate. I imagine the meetings will now have a little extra frisson.
On a lower level, I'm a GMB member, a Progress 'contributing editor'2, and a Labour party member. So through the wonders of the Labour Conference voting system, I'll enjoy the schizophrenic experience of my vote being cast in favour of outlawing me from myself. To think people say politics is out of touch!
Indeed, perhaps the most disturbing sign for Progress is the support offered by Dan Hodges, whose japesome journey from GMB spinner to Labour's most loquacious internal dissident has made him loathed by pretty much everyone from Ed Miliband's office leftwards. (A hopeful side note: Dan Hodges is now writing for the New Statesman again after an almighty row last year, so reconciliation and forgiveness is clearly possible).
On top of that, the 'charge sheet' is fairly silly. One allegation is that someone in Progress has 'briefed against' the Leader of the Labour party in the Press. If true, on that basis we should outlaw pretty much anyone from any Trade Union press office from roughly 1997-2007. (Dan Hodges would then get expelled twice over, amusingly)2.
So should all this simply be dismissed as standard political nonsense?
For all I find it amusing, more than worrying, I think not.
The left of the Labour party is in the grip of the most dangerous thing in politics: an interesting idea.
Roughly summarised, this idea is that the issue for the Labour party is that, thanks to Tony Blair, we lost significant support among the working classes and that the best way to win them back, and thus return to power, is to advocate policies that are demonstrably on the left - Those I've heard most often include significantly higher public spending, opposing all (or most) cuts, higher taxes, higher welfare spend, generous public pay settlements and more worker's rights (for which read legislation in support of union organisation and action). Naturally, it is believed that these polices would deliver their intended purposes of greater propserity and social justice.
Further, the proponents of this idea hold that since the departure of Tony Blair what has prevented the Labour party adopting this strategy is not that Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have -to varying degrees- disagreed with the political strategy, found the policies that support it unworkable or been unconvinced they would achieve the aim of greater social justice, but instead that they have been nobbled by a group who hold Labour's leadership hostage to their neo-liberal agenda. Therefore, if only this influence were expunged, Labour would finally be free to be true to our real values.
To be fair to those who believe this, in the long years of Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's leaderships, a lot of nods and winks were given in this direction by certain people who have never authorised negative briefing against anyone.
Further, there is now also a strand of Labour thinking that is perhaps not wholly convinced by the policy agenda of the left, but is certainly attracted to the ambition and optimism of renewed radicalism and egalitarian purpose.
For these progressive optimists, people like me, constantly sucking our teeth and muttering "Listen guv, I'm not sure that Transaction tax'll do yer for five years of progressive governance in an era of high debt and low growth" are at best weak and unambitious, at worst cynical believers in a dangerously valueless pragmatism.
So, on my reading, there are those who sincerely believe that a turn to the left is right in principle, those who have used the hope of such a turn for internal political purposes, and those who believe that the language and ideas of the left should not be ruled out, even if the content might need be modified at a later date.
Now, the problem a faction fight today poses for the latter two groups is that if the deviant rightists are utterly crushed, as we would be, the Left will quite reasonably then ask what is holding the party back from adopting a properly left agenda, and I'm not sure either the "nodders and winkers" or the "progressive optimists" have got a good answer, or the votes to win any resulting battles. The Blairite zombies, in other words, are quite useful.
Given the underlying balance of power in the party decisionmaking process, I don't see why Len McCluskey and Paul Kenny, (and beyond the Labour party, Andrew Murray and Mark Serwotka) are going to suddenly stop demanding the things they passionately believe in and have devoted much of their lives to acheiving, if Progress and their fellow travellers are expunged.
The truth is the Labour left have an important idea, and because of it, they really think a truly left wing party is electable and plausible3 and so they want to see it happen.
I think a major debate about their idea is essential and inevitable.
Personally, I relish that debate and that fight, because I think this new idea of the left is a big idea, an important idea, an idea worth taking seriously (see for example, my article for the Fabian Review and here, discussing the "shattering of the Austerity consensus").
I also think it's a very, very, very wrong idea.
I want that debate, not because I expect to win, (I don't. I expect to lose very badly indeed, in the short term). but because it matters to the Labour party.
I have only two concerns.
First, the debate should be conducted on the level of ideas, not using organisational muscle to prevent inconvienent dissent or organisation. Just as people in the CLPD didn't expect to get into the cabinet under Tony Blair, I don't expect to be a GMB endorsed candidate for the NEC, but like them, I would quite like not to be "outlawed". We should have the fight, win or lose, then pick ourselves up and start again after the next election.
Second, that we don't get into the kind of tussle that hurts the party in the eyes of the public. Once you get into an organisational fight rather than an ideas fight, the remorseless one-upmanship of the "Chicago Way" gets hard to avoid. Do we really want that?
If we go the Chicago way (knife,gun, hospital, morgue), in the end Ed Miliband will be forced to devote time and effort to an issue of no concern to 99.999% of the public, simply because the faction fight will be the story of Conference. Is that really what we want?
It is far better for the party that nobodies like me get flattened in huge ideological brawls than that the leadership has to define itself by their stance on the value of different internal factions. (Unless of course the leadership wants to define itself by an ideological brawl, which is up to them)
Personally I'm happy to play the role of political pinata in the debate about Labour's future over the next couple of years- I'll even enjoy it, because it'll be a good fight, and a lot of fun and I have some spare time in the evenings.
But let's leave it there.
1: I'm not entirely sure what a Contributing Editor is, but it sounds good, and I need the CV points.
2: On the other charges against Progress: Progress has, what, a half share in a slate that will perhaps secure three seats on the NEC out of thirty-three? Of those three, I'm fairly certain two will be people who voted for Ed Miliband for leader and the GMB's national political officer for General Secretary.
For a powerful, shadowy, dangerous right wing faction, Progress is remarkably small, open and heterodox. As for the policy issues, I disagree with lots of people about lots of things, but I'm not sure trying to chuck them out of the party is a great idea, unless they're properly entryist, and while I'm right wing in Labour terms, I'm fairly certain I'm not a Cameronian stooge)
3: Those who are members of the Labour party do, at any rate. Those in other movements on the left don't much like the Labour party as it stands, and want something better.