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The Progress fringe programme backed by Tory businessmen

by SOLOMON HUGHES

PROGRESS, the New Labour faction inside the party, organised not one but two fringe meetings sponsored by Tory-run companies at this year’s conference in Liverpool. 

Progress’s desire to have expensive catered events in a smart, central hall at the conference means it relies heavily on “sponsors” to fund its meetings. 

Six of its nine fringe meetings had some kind of corporate sponsorship. It seems Progress doesn’t mind if these sponsors are run by Conservative activists.

Progress held one meeting on “can we solve the housing crisis,” sponsored by a company called Emoov. This firm is a mostly online estate agent, a bit like its better known competitor Purple Bricks. 

Getting an estate agent company to sponsor a Labour meeting on housing probably wouldn’t be the obvious choice for most party members. 

Estate agents aren’t really the popular face of capitalism, but it got worse. Russell Quirk, the founder and chief executive of Emoov, was given the key speaker’s role at the meeting in return for his company’s sponsorship. 

Quirk told the Labour fringe meeting that he was probably “the only person” at the conference “who was elected as a Conservative councillor.” 

Because Progress relies on corporate sponsorship and gives sponsors the chance to select speakers, it allowed a Tory-minded estate agent to buy his way onto its Labour Party platform.

Quirk was a Tory councillor in Brentwood until he formed his own short-lived breakaway group, called Brentwood First. Quirk’s firm, Emoov, has other political links — and not in a good way. Emoov is owned by Richard Desmond, who gave Ukip over £1 million in donations. 

Until he recently sold it off, Desmond ran the very right-wing, very anti-Labour Express newspaper. The Guardian called Desmond a “crude, ruthless proprietor who squeezed profits.” 

Quirk told the meeting that the solution to the housing crisis is a publicly run housebuilding drive, so that’s something. But in Quirk’s plan a government-owned PLC should build loads of houses, trying to make a profit and free from government “interference.” 

The scheme, for a “UK Housing PLC , run like a private enterprise with a “public-private hybrid mentality” has more in common with the failing, part-privatised rail system or the botched bank bailouts than socialism. 

Progress clearly wants to reach out to the new leadership of the party and the revived left. It invited shadow housing minister John Healey to speak. 

He outlined Labour’s plans for increased council housebuilding and regulation of private landlords, but Healey had to give his speech under Quirk’s PowerPoint slides, which dominated the platform. 

Progress also held a meeting on extremism on the internet. This was held “in partnership with TRD Policy” — a research company. 

Dr Garvan Walshe, founder and owner of TRD Research, was also one of the panel speakers. Clearly paying for the room and food means getting a seat on the panel. 

It’s a kind of democracy, where votes are cast in the form of money. Walshe was introduced as a “former government national security adviser,” but, as he admitted, Walshe is actually a former security adviser to the last Tory government.  

According to House of Lords records, Walshe continues to be an adviser to Tory Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones. Walshe is still an active, and intemperate, Tory propagandist.

A quick skim through the Tory ConservativeHome website shows articles where Walshe insults Jeremy Cornyn as “Putin’s useful idiot” and describes the rise of Corbyn-supporting Labour as “organised political theft by anti-democratic extremists.”

Unsurprisingly, Progress’s programme of meetings sponsored by Tory businessmen wasn’t very popular with Labour delegates. At the meeting with Walshe there were seven people on the panel, but only 12 in the audience. 

Progress is an extreme case, but throughout the conference “moderate” organisations and think tanks held well-catered but uninspiring and sometimes poorly attended meetings. 

Ten minutes up the road, at the Momentum-inspired festival, The World Transformed, there were more, more varied, bigger and more enthusiastic meetings. 

The “moderate” groups think a good meeting has to be in a smart room with a free buffet. But charges for these kind of central rooms can be £2,000 an hour, so they need a corporate sponsor to foot the bill.  

However, as the old saying goes, he who pays for the piped salmon mousse calls the tune. The corporate-sponsored meetings often end up with an uninspiring corporate-approved panel, which in turn can mean turnout is low, as delegates aren’t drawn to the meeting. 

The fringe meeting ends up with the think tank wonks, back-bench MPs, SpAds and lobbyists performing for the sponsor before an empty house, in what feels like an artificial imitation of an actual political conference.

By contrast The World Transformed relied on cheaper halls, modest ticket prices and loads of enthusiastic volunteers. 

The TWT team, heavily reliant on volunteers, told me they laid out 300 chairs at a time, nailed carpet tiles to walls to make rooms soundproof, hung banners, made hundreds of sandwiches, scrubbed the pots and managed the queues and all manner of other turn-your-hand-to-it work.  

The result was as different from and better than the sales-conference atmosphere and hotel-conference-room ambience of the “moderate” fringe as possible. 

The meetings were held in rooms that didn’t have carpets on the floor, but did have banners on the wall. As Richard Burgon MP told a Socialist Campaign Group rally, which had an audience of hundreds of people of all ages and kinds, “What brings us together is not canapes, it’s not a corporate-sponsored buffet, it’s socialism.” 

The moderates in the half-filled rooms should consider joining. Comrades, you have nothing to lose but your prawns in filo pastry.

 

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