The last bastion of New Labour has fallen. Progress, a group of modernisers inside the Labour Party who tried to keep Tony Blair’s flame alive, has decided to drop its “New Labour” label.
The 2,000-strong pressure group is to be relaunched as the party’s mainstream grassroots body in a symbolic break with its past as the cheerleader for the Blair project.
“We have to move on,” said John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness, who was elected chairman of Progress this week on a ticket to abandon its “New Labour” branding. He defeated Phil Wilson, Mr Blair’s successor as MP for Sedgefield and one of the “famous five” in the constituency who helped him win the nomination as Labour candidate and launch his political career.
Mr Woodcock told The Independent: “Moving on to call ourselves mainstream Labour shows the success of how New Labour changed the party. What Progress champions now represents the centre of gravity for our movement.”
It seems that Progress judged that clinging to the “New Labour” brand was damaging its growth prospects. Two years ago, the GMB and Unison unions called unsuccessfully for the group to be expelled by Labour on the grounds that it was a “party within a party”, like the Militant Tendency because it puts up candidates in Labour’s internal elections.
“We have been wrongly portrayed as a faction, not a proper part of the Labour family,” said Mr Woodcock. “It gives people a stick with which to beat us.”
The MP denied that Progress was distancing itself from Mr Blair, whose recent call for the West to fight radical Islam in the Middle East raised eyebrows even among some of his natural allies in the party. Others claim his standing has been damaged by his uncompromising defence of the 2003 Iraq War.
Mr Woodcock, a Blairite who worked as a political spin doctor to Gordon Brown in Downing Street, said: “New Labour is now part of Labour’s history. Its instincts are alive and well in the party. So much of what Ed Miliband embodies is what New Labour was always about. The world keeps moving. Progress has got to be seen to be about the future. We are being held back because we can be described as backward-looking.”
He added: “The whole point is to move on from a label which has passed into history. The instincts and values which drove us to win in 1997, saw us command the political landscape and win three elections are alive and well in Ed Miliband’s Labour Party.
“Progress wants to be part of the future, not anchored in an illustrious part of Labour’s history. We have been wrongly labelled a faction by people who want us to be marginalised.”
The repositioning appears to be good news for Mr Miliband, and will be seen as a sign of the party uniting behind him with a year to go to the general election. He stood as the “not Blair” candidate when he defeated his brother David for the Labour leadership in 2010, and then distanced the party from New Labour by rebranding it “One Nation Labour.”
The main funder of Progress has been Lord (David) Sainsbury of the supermarket family. The former Science Minister has donated £650,000 since 2011 but has not given money to the Labour Party since Mr Miliband became leader. He donated more than £10 million to Labour in the previous 10 years. Lord Sainsbury has described Mr Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg as “pretty average” and not in the “top bracket” like Mr Blair or Margaret Thatcher. He insists he no longer funds Labour because he is involved in the cross-party Institute for Government think tank.
New Labour: The Birth
1989: Pollster Philip Gould floats the idea among Labour modernisers
1992: Concept gains ground after Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” win US Presidential election
1994: Gould sends memo to Tony Blair headed: “New Labour; Right as Well as Left”.
1994: Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, embraces idea of making “New Labour” the party’s new identity
1994: “New Labour, New Britain” makes its public debut as slogan for Labour conference at which Blair announces plans to abolish the party’s Clause IV commitment to old-style public ownership. Left-wing critics claim party has been re-named without agreement