Unions back thinktank to remind Labour of roots in working lives

Class, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, offers leftwing antidote to Blairite pressure group Progress. Class, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, was launched earlier this summer. It was conceived by the leader of Unite, Len McCluskey, and Paul Kenny, GMB general secretary, whose respective affiliated unions are both large funders of Labour.

The centre’s media adviser is Owen Jones, author of the popular polemic Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class.

The non-affiliated Public and Commercial Services Union is also financing the body, with talks with other unions under way as the thinktank gears up to host fringe debates at the TUC and Labour conferences in September.

The new body generating ideas and research in already crowded terrain is a result of frustration on the political left at what they see as a failure to present a “coherent alternative” to the economic crisis to disaffected Labour voters and concern at the influence they believe the New Labour pressure group Progress wields over the party.

Jones said Class would be a thinktank rooted in the experiences of working people.

“The policy process within the Labour party shouldn’t be top-down. This project is a bridge between the intellectual expertise of the academics and economists we are working with, and the trade unions, which are uniquely rooted in the experiences of working people in this country. So we can bring together both in terms of articulating an alternative that will resonate with working people, which Unite exists to represent.”

Jones added that Class was not designed to be a “trade union puppet”, but had been set up as a strictly independent body in a serious attempt to inform Labour’s policy debate and contribute to the policy review led by Jon Cruddas.

The thinktank is overseen by a small management committee, with a large national advisory panel of academics, economists and journalists to assist in guiding policy direction and providing expertise.

The panel includes the Guardian’s Seumas Milne and Polly Toynbee, and Jack Dromey, the former T&G deputy general secretary who is now MP for Birmingham Erdington and shadow minister for communities and local government.

The thinktank says its core agenda is developing economic and industrial policies, and tackling the housing crisis and inequality.

Tensions over the future direction of Labour recently burst into the open during the union conference season when Kenny called for Progress to be “outlawed” from the party.

The GMB leader’s outburst gave voice to those on the left who claim Progress is pushing a “neo-liberal” agenda on to Labour through its supporters in the shadow cabinet.

Progress did not return fire. But amid fears that Labour could resume infighting after a period of relative unity, Ed Miliband intervened to make it clear that he wanted the party to be “open to ideas, open to organisations and open to people who want to be part of it”.

One of the main criticisms levelled at Progress by the left was that the pressure group has largely been funded since 1996 by the former Labour minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville, one of Tony Blair’s biggest champions and a big Labour donor until Miliband took over the leadership.

Though Unite is among unions engaged in community organising and ensuring more working-class candidates get into parliament, and is now partly funding a thinktank, supporters resist the suggestion that such moves mirror the accusations levelled at Progress. They say that unions are democratic bodies that make up the bedrock of the Labour movement, in contrast to what Unison leader Dave Prentis recently called “a party within a party, funded by external interests”.

Progress describes itself as an independent organisation of Labour party members and trade unionists, with more members than ever before, and points to the diversity of speakers invited to its events.

But it responded to some accusations levelled by unions by announcing a number of changes earlier this month, including greater disclosure of donors and sponsors, a move welcomed by its critics.

Jones said the launch of the union-backed thinktank was not a co-ordinated response to concerns about Progress, which is chaired by the former Labour minister Lord Adonis, and whose honorary president is the shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg. He said: “Progress is trying to win a debate basically by organisational muscle. This is about engaging in a battle of ideas and winning the battle of ideas.”

He added that the democratic legitimacy of trade unions, which between them represent more than six million workers, can help fashion policies to help woo back five million voters who turned their back on Labour during its 13 years in power.

He is frustrated at the way many EU countries have seized on the financial crisis to push through a rightwing agenda. “In Britain now you are seeing a huge, gathering backlash against austerity.”

But he added: “Unless people feel there is a coherent alternative, all you get is mass resignation, a sense of ‘I don’t like what is happening but I can’t see what alternative there is’. So this will help transform the debate within the Labour party in particular.”

Steve Hart, chair of Class and Unite’s political director, says unions want a stake in thinktanks as they are increasingly influential in shaping party policy.

“Labour in the recent past has relied more on ideas that come from the Institute for Public Policy ResearchDemos and more recently some work from Compass and the Resolution Foundation – a whole number of them. Now we’re trying to shift the terms of the debate somewhat to the left. We are assisting in the development of a thinktank that is around more progressive ideas that will have an impact as well.”

He said the thinktank would publish its funding and sponsors online and be “completely open and transparent”.

Hart added: “When there are ideas that come out of the thinktank that seem really important to the union, we will attempt to popularise them. We’ve got 1.5 million members in Unite.

“If we get ideas out and we start talking about them … we can actually generate quite a momentum behind the understanding around those areas.”

As Labour’s biggest donor, how will Unite respond if the party doesn’t take ideas on board? Hart said unions continued giving to the party though Labour failed to repeal anti-trade union laws during 13 years in power. “We think the best ideas we come up with will become the new common sense and we will win,” said Hart.

Robert Philpot, Progress director, welcomed the arrival of Class: “I hope we will be able to build a similar kind of co-operative relationship as we have with IPPR and the Fabians. We are all in the Labour party together and we all want to see Ed Miliband elected in 2015.”

This article first appeared on The Guardian website on August 16th.

Class on Twitter – @Classthinktank

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