Progress, the Labour Party think tank that is closely associated with leading ‘Blairite’ figures, has written to MPs and supporters warning that ‘there is a real chance it could close’ following Lord Sainsbury’s decisions to withdraw his financial support for the group.
The Labour peer has bankrolled the organisation since it was founded in 1996 but last made a donation of £130,000 earlier this year, according to a detailed list of donations published on the Progress website. Progress has an annual income of £426,408, according to accounts filed at Companies House.
An email sent at the end of the summer by a Progress fundraiser to members and potential backers, including many Labour MPs, set out the funding crisis it faces in stark terms. It warns: ‘You will have seen the news that [Lord Sainsbury] is sending (Sic) his support for party political caused (Sic) at the end of this year. There is now a real chance that Progress will close. It would be a huge blow if this were to be allowed to happen.’
Progress is chaired by Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South. It was set up as a forum to discuss and promote progressive ideas but has been synonymous with the former Labour leader and the domestic agenda he pursued as Prime Minister since it was established. That means it has been been vilified by many on the left, who see it as an organisation that exists to defend Blair’s legacy. Despite that perception, Jeremy Corbyn spoke at Progress’s annual conference in May last year.
A number of other figures on the left of the party, including Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry, have also addressed Progress events. But it’s Director Richard Angell is one of the Labour leader’s most trenchant and uncompromising critics. He recently described rule changes pushed through by Corbyn, which hand rank and file members more power on the NEC and will make it easier for a left-wing candidate for run for the leadership when a vacancy arises, as a ‘power grab’ by the Labour leader.
The email, dated 28 August, was sent to Labour insiders who attended a party in June to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Labour landslide, which delivered a massive Parliamentary majority on the back of a ten per cent swing from the Tories to Labour. At the last general election in June Labour made a net gain of 32 seats on a 2 per cent swing. It sets out a funding plan designed to secure the future of Progress by increasing the amount of money it generates from members. The email claims the plan is progressing well. At the time it was written over 600 people had already joined a Progress ‘thousand club’ modelled on the Labour Party equivalent, which gives members who make larger donations access to events at which senior party figures are present.
The organisation said at the time of Lord Sainsbury’s decision to withdraw funding that it would focus on building a network of smaller donors in order to preserve its future. Past benefactors have included public relations firm Portland, which was set up by former Blair advisor Tim Allan and public affairs company Lexington Communications, owned and run by former Labour advisor Mike Craven. Lord Mandelson has also donated thousands of pounds. The email says: ‘there is no ‘new’ Lord Sainsbury’. Rumours have been circulating in recent weeks, however, that Progress may be close to securing a major new financial backer.
As the email also makes clear, Progress has become a well-established part of the political landscape. It describes the organisation as ‘a safe space away from those who like to scream “Red Tory” at those who actually beat the Tories (three times), it defends Labour’s record in government rather than treats it as an embarrassing compromise with reality, and it helps train a new generation of Labour activists who are committed to the party’s genuine roots and traditions rather than offer shelter for paper sellers who’ve had enough standing about in the political rain’.