In this outstanding guest post, Liverpool-based writer and student activist Rory Hughes looks at the wider context of the unhealthy cosiness of some Labour MPs and functionaries with their Tory counterparts – and with organisations that often seem at odds with what most would consider true Labour principles.
Please read, share – and join the SKWAWKBOX in wondering just what the hell the current, right-dominated Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) were thinking in allowing Conservative think-tanks to stage a fringe event at this year’s annual Conference in Brighton. That one of them is Iain Duncan Smith’s CSJ beggars belief.
The fantastic news today that two left-wing members have been overwhelmingly elected to the CAC should make this nonsense a thing of the past from next year’s conference in Liverpool, but sadly comes too late to prevent it in Brighton.
Laura Pidcock is right: the issue is, Labour and Conservative MPs are often more than friends – by Rory Hughes
Laura Pidcock MP has been hounded from all sides for her claims that she has “absolutely no intention” of being friends with any Tory MPs. Conservative and Labour voices hit out at her for the comments.
The backlash has highlighted how MPs, including many in the Labour Party, enjoy parliament’s archaic pompous routines and atmosphere, the Oxbridge debate club camaraderie, and share a sense that politics is both an abstracted game of ideas and that MPs must band together against the mean people outside (voters). The idea that Pidcock’s comments are even ‘controversial’ is revealing. Titans of the Labour Party such as Nye Bevan gladly said much worse things about the Conservative Party and even the conservative intellectual Peter Oborne highlights how such an atmosphere of ‘friendliness’ led to the expenses scandal and ‘a lack of scrutiny ahead of the Iraq invasion’.
Unfortunately, amidst the uproar, there has been a distinct lack of analysis of what Labour and Tory MPs’ friendship networks actually look like. A cursory glance through the fringe listings of Labour Conference 2017 reveals that many Labour and Conservative MPs aren’t just friends and ‘colleagues’ inside parliament, but are actively collegiate in their moonlighting hours on ‘cross-party’ think tanks and NGOs.
The Centre for Progressive Capitalism
‘The Centre for Progressive Capitalism’ is running a fringe event at Labour Conference entitled “The Brexit Technical Skills Challenge.” In the think tank’s own words,
“The Centre for Progressive Capitalism’s mission is to develop policies and influence policymakers to instigate a more progressive and democratic capitalism.”
A vague and mild social democratic agenda, broadly fitting within the Labour Party’s purview. It is little wonder then that Labour MPs, such as Stephen Kinnock and Chuka Umunna, sit on the think tank’s ‘Advisory Board’ and that Andy Burnham and Chi Onwurah MP have both been invited to the fringe event. However, sat alongside them on the Advisory Board of the organisation also sit:
- Vince Cable MP- Leader of the Liberal Democrats
- Sharon Bowles- A Lib Dem baroness and ex- MEP
- Lord Andrew Cooper — David Cameron’s once Director of Strategy and ex deputy director of the Conservative Research Department (part of Tory HQ)
- Lord Stephen Green — An ex-Conservative minister for Trade and Investment under David Cameron and currently a Conservative peer
- Kay Swinburne — A serving Conservative MEP
Next we look to ‘Radix’, the self-proclaimed “think tank for the radical centre.” They are hosting, alongside Chuka Umunna, a fringe event at conference entitled, ‘Will One Last Heave Win Labour the Next General Election?’
Stephen Kinnock sits on the Trustee Board of Radix alongside:
- Nick Clegg- Former Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister
- Andrew Lansley — The ex-Conservative health minister and key architect of NHS privatisation and prime example of ‘the revolving door’ between private healthcare firms and government
- Fiona Melville – Worked for the Conservative Party from 2003–2007 including on David Cameron’s leadership campaign
Social Market Foundation
Next on the list are ‘The Social Market Foundation’ another self-proclaimed think tank for ‘the radical centre’. According to their website they believe, ‘that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well.’ They are hosting a grand total of 5 fringe events at Labour Conference this year! These include:
‘Challenges for the UK economy’.
‘New Jobs, New Technologies, Same Old Solutions? Labour, The Trade Unions, And The Changing Labour Market’
‘Carers and Careers — A Balancing Act: How Can We Better Support Carers Who Work?’
They are hosting this alongside private healthcare firm SimplyHealth.
On the governing board of the Social Market Foundation sit the likes of:
- Baroness Tessa Jowell (Labour)
- Baroness Olly Grender (Lib Dem)
- Baroness Gillian Shephard (Conservative)
- Graham Mather — Former Conservative MEP
On their ‘Policy Advisory Board’ sit Labour MPs such as: Chuka Umunna, Alison McGovern, Rushanara Ali, Liz Kendall, Chris Leslie, Stephen Kinnock and Rachel Reeves.
These MPs sit happily alongside Conservatives such as: Flick Drummond (just lost her seat), John Glen MP (The self-styled ‘People’s Defender’), Andrew Tyrie MP, Suella Fernandes MP, Stephen Dorell (ex MP)
These extra-parliamentary networks of think tanks between Labour and Conservative MPs help to cement collegiate relations and friendships as well a broad consensus on many major policy issues.
Webb Memorial Trust
Labour and Tory MPs also choose to work together outside parliament on charitable organisations such as the Webb Memorial Trust. The Trust is running a fringe event at Labour Conference entitled ‘Rethinking Poverty — Because the Traditional Ways Don’t Work’ with Debbie Abrahams and Kate Green MP both in attendance. In the Trust’s own words,
The Trust was formed in 1947 with the purpose of ‘the advancement of education and learning with respect to the history and problems of government and social policy.
Being a trustee of a charity is often seen as a great honour and a rewarding pet project to counteract the dullness of representing constituents. Little wonder then that it is a cross-party activity. Featuring on the Trustee Board are:
- Mike Gapes MP – Labour
- Kate Green MP — Labour
- Chris White – Conservative MP until the recent General Election
- Lord John Shipley — Lib Dem peer
Whilst the aforementioned think tanks, NGOs and MPs justify such relationships by being ‘cross-party’ or ‘non-partisan’, the more naked presence of Conservative think tanks at Labour Conference highlights the extent of the far too friendly atmosphere between the two parties’ politicians.
The Conservative think tank ‘Bright Blue’ is hosting a session at Labour Conference this year entitled, ‘Looking After Mum and Dad? Preparing for an Ageing Society’.
Bright Blue have invited Barbara Keeley MP (Labour’s Shadow Minister for Older People, Social Care and Carers) and Andy Burnham appears to have confirmed his attendance. One can only wonder what Labour’s Shadow Minister for Social Care and the Mayor of Greater Manchester (who orchestrated his own mea culpa on health and social care privatisation) are eager to learn from a Bright Blue event about how to fix the social care crisis.
Perhaps most shocking are the three fringe events hosted by the Orwellian- named think tank, ‘The Centre for Social Justice’. The think tank was the brain-child of Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron’s former chief of staff Tim Montgomerie. Smith still remains Chair of the organisation.
Despite homelessness rocketing under the Conservative government, owing largely to the benefit reforms that IDS himself introduced, one of the events the Centre for Social Justice is hosting is entitled ‘Implementing Housing First: How To End Rough Sleeping’. Andrew Gwynne MP (Labour’s shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government) has been invited. Labour MPs have been invited to all of their events and Nia Griffith MP has accepted her invitation.
Despite the shift towards the left, the unions and social movements under Jeremy Corbyn, much of the Labour apparatus is still enthralled to the logic of Blairism. Throughout the New Labour period, a larger and larger presence was afforded to corporate lobbyists at conference. Alongside this growing voice for capital in the heart of the labour movement there was increasing space given to an infinite number of wonky, ‘non-partisan’ and buzzword themed think tanks and NGOs hosting or being involved with sessions. Delving into the governance of these latter bodies one can see how collegiate many Labour and Tory MPs really are and that Despite protestations, their relationships often extend well outside of the necessary parliamentary alliance-building. Laura Pidcock is brave and principled for announcing her antipathy to friendships with those who represent the privileged and harm her constituents. Now we just have to untangle those friendships, particularly from the sovereign body of the Labour Party — Conference.
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