Halting Progress?

Rather than tackling political enemies head-on over clear ideological dividing lines, sometimes it can be more effective to tackle them indirectly through the application of ‘bureaucratic’ procedures.

By Dr Danny Rye, Writer and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College

In a speech to the GMB union conference recently, leader Paul Kenny threatened to ‘outlaw’ Labour Party pressure group Progress, accusing it of acting as ‘a party within a party, funded by external interests’.  In a motion to the same conference Progress is compared directly with the Militant Tendency, accused of briefing against the party’s leader and undermining the its London mayoral campaign.

Progress, a self-proclaimed ‘New Labour’ pressure group funded largely by Lord (David) Sainsbury, is not a natural ally of left-wing union leaders but does that justify such talk from Kenny?  Pressure groups are hardly unusual in political parties and Labour has traditionally been home to many groups peddling differing brands of left-wing and liberal politics (although the Blair years were unusually quiet on the faction front).  The direct comparison with Militant presents Progress, however, as something more sinister than a mere pressure group: a clandestine alien presence, a foreign body seeking to subvert the Labour Party to its own ends.

This comparison is overstated.  Quite apart from the vast ideological chasm between the two, there are obvious differences between Progress and Militant:  firstly, Progress (unlike Militant) does not deny being an organisation and is relatively open about its aims and membership; secondly, Progress though not directly affiliated to the Labour Party works within it openly whereas Militant was an ‘entryist’ group dedicated to covert colonisation from within.

We should take this seriously because it is symptomatic of a power struggle between two competing sets of interests in the party looking to influence the party’s future direction.  Indeed, this is clear from the wording of the GMB motion which points out disapprovingly that ‘Progress advances the strategy of accepting Tory arguments for public spending cuts’.  This may be politically reprehensible from a left-wing point-of-view but hardly an offence deserving of expulsion.  Perhaps more seriously, it accuses the group of conducting ‘factional campaigns to undermine Labour candidates’, most notably in relation to the London Mayoral election.  However, given that the evidence presented is an issue of Progress in November 2011 ‘casting doubt’ on Ken Livingstone’s suitability as a candidate, it hardly amounts to a systematic campaign to undermine left-wing candidates.

Nonetheless, if Union leaders like Kenny really wanted to draw lessons from the Militant episode they should take note of how the party eventually dealt with them successfully after years of neglect and failure.  The key, it turns out, is to be less political and more bureaucratic.

Political scientists are interested in struggles like this because of what they say about power and one of the lessons of the party’s struggle with Militant in the 1980s is that sometimes the most effective exercise power is the less obvious one.  Rather than meet political enemies head-on over clear ideological dividing lines it might be more effective to tackle them indirectly through the application of the right kinds of bureaucratic procedures.  Attempts to confront Militant in the Labour Party of the early-1980s, simply entangled the party in protracted procedural and legal wrangling, often with no discernable outcome except public embarrassment and bad publicity for the party, leaving it looking both divided and weak.

The eventual solution was one both more indirect and effective.  Responsibility for discipline of members was removed from the party’s main political body and transferred to a new independent committee bound by clear rules and procedures that were legally water-tight.   The process of party discipline was thereby effectively depoliticised, becoming more bureaucratic and rule-based.  Contrary to popular opinion about bureaucracy, this immediately made discipline more effective and efficient.

This new regime was not (ostensibly at least) concerned with individual actions, ideas or beliefs but, as Larry Whitty the party’s General Secretary put it at the time ‘a sustained period of conduct’ such as standing against an official party candidate[1] and ‘bringing the party into disrepute’ which specifically included membership of organisations deemed ‘incompatible’ because of the way they or their activities were structured.

The result of this legalistic, rule-based approach was to actually achieve the political objectives the party leadership sought and had expressed in Neil Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech.  However, it was precisely successful because members of Militant could now be explicitly and clearly pursued for breaking party rules rather than than for their political beliefs.  It also made the expulsions more acceptable to those on the emerging ‘soft-left’, such as Clare Short, who had previously harboured doubts about so-called ‘witch-hunts’ of left-wingers but was soon at the forefront of their prosecution.  In the years immediately following the rule change 119 members were charged with Militant membership, of which 112 were expelled.

Greater clarity of organisational (as opposed to ideological) rules and the establishment of clear procedure enabled the party to purge itself of organised groups hostile to the leadership (including the Militant Tendency) much more efficiently. Furthermore, it meant that now there was a permanent process in which cases such as these could be heard and resolved relatively quickly and efficiently.

The lesson therefore is that the investigation and punishment of those who break rules is made simpler by a) the establishment and enforcement of new and existing rules and b) clear procedures for investigation and the application of sanctions.   Discipline in other words becomes depersonalised, procedural and concerns the efficacy of the party’s ability to effectively pursue broadly electoral goals rather than specific political or ideological ones.

By ‘letting go’ of the process of discipline and passing it over to a new bureaucratic, rule-based committee, party leaders actually got more of what they wanted.  Discipline became a process by which certain kinds of organised voices were excluded and ruled out of the political arena.  It remains that such rule changes may initially require an explicit power-struggle.  However, once implemented, these rules and processes take on a life of their own.  Thus, this case illuminates how power can be more effective when it works more subtly through the routine procedures and functioning of party organisation to discipline members.  Punishments and exclusions for specifically ideological reasons look too much like the ‘witch-hunts’ of the 1950s in reverse, and it was an understanding of this, rather than sabre-rattling, that was crucial to the successful expulsion of Militant in the 1980s.

Perhaps it is a recognistion of this that lays behind ASLEF’s recent submission to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).   The train driver’s union is reported to have submitted major rule changes with the apparent aim of keeping groups like Progress under control.  The proposals would require all non-affiliated organisations engaging in internal activity to notify the national party of all legally reportable donations received and to transfer 50% of all donations received beyond the first £25,000 per annum to the Labour Party nationally.  Furthermore, it would also require incorporated organisations that engage in internal activity to provide all legal and financial documentation to the NEC on request in order to ensure that organisations ‘meet acceptable standards of democracy, governance and transparency’.  Progress have responded by promising to institute greater transparency, including greater disclosure of donors and sponsors and a more democratic governance structure.  As well they might.  Should ASLEF’s proposed changes become incorporated into party rules, Kenny and his supporters may get their way with or without a formal ban.  Progress may simply find itself crushed under the wheels of the party’s bureaucratic rules, rendering any moves to ‘outlaw’ it unnecessary.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9 JULY 2012 by the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, Birkbeck College University of London


[1] Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1986