By Neil Harris
THE GROWING concerns of the trade union movement about “Progress”, the wealthy Blairite faction operating inside the Labour Party, are well founded but this is not the only threat to working class representation in Parliament. At the 17th May 2011 National Executive Committee meeting, it was agreed to accept funding from the Lionel Cooke Memorial Fund , “ to train and support up to 75 people interested in standing as parliamentary candidates”. Not surprisingly, concern was expressed when it was indicated that this would be open to non-party members.
Had trade unionists on the NEC been aware of the background and ideology behind the trust, the concerns would have been greater. The fund was established in 1956, following the death of Lionel Cooke, a prosperous Brighton businessman and an admirer and ally of Hugh Gaitskell the right wing Labour leader.
Gaitskell had always been an enemy of the working class, establishing the “XYZ club” just before the Second World War and of which he was to remain the secretary until his death. The purpose of the “club” was to offer wealthy City businessmen the chance to wine and dine with Gaitskell and others on the Labour right and as a result get an opportunity to “explain” to them the concerns of the City.
In reality this was a secret conduit funnelling money and support to Gaitskell and his cronies, outside Labour Party democracy. Cooke’s fund is firmly in this tradition, over the years it has gone out of its way to avoid publicity where most trust funds try to encourage applications from as wide a field as possible.
From 1956 until 1981 the trustees were all drawn from the traditional Labour right and the proceeds went to their pet projects. In 1978 for example, the money was divided between summer school scholarships for their protégés, Socialist Commentary (the house journal of the pro-European, Atlanticist right) and the Campaign for a Labour Victory, a Cold War organisation aimed at fighting communists and trotskyites in the labour and trade union movement.
In 1981 it all changed when directors Lord Sainsbury (senior), Bill Rodgers, and David Owen defected to the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP), although they remained on the board of the trust. From that point on the money went to the SDP and the right wing Social Market Foundation, until 1996 and 1997 when the fund paid out £15,000 each year to Tony Blair’s personal office in the run up to the election.
In the 1990’s Peter Mandelson had been tramping up and down the length and breadth of the country, attending countless selection meetings to ensure that candidates of the left were not chosen. Today, the parliamentary Labour party reflects his hard work.
Now that the fund has reverted to the Labour right (with directors like Margaret Jay, daughter of former premier James Callaghan), they are actively using it in the same way; to select and promote a new generation of candidates acceptable to Labour’s right wing and ready to be parachuted into the constituencies in good time for the next election.
While the “Future Candidates Programme”, with its snappy slogan “Champions to win”, aims “to build and support a diverse pool of talented individuals from which local Labour Party members can select their candidates for the next general election”, it should be no surprise that there has been virtually no open publicity amongst the trade union and co-operative movement, except perhaps by word of mouth amongst the right wing.
Among the listed requirements are that candidates should “have campaigning experience with the Labour Party although this is preferable rather than essential”, but nowhere is there any mention of union membership or experience. To make sure that candidates get the point, the information pack sets it out: “To apply for the Future Candidates Programme you do not need to be a Labour Party member but should be willing to join should you be selected to take part”.
For the completely clueless there is a strong hint in the guidelines for candidates: “You may wish to visit the following web pages for further information about the Labour Party – What is the Labour Party/ History of the Labour Party”.
The first round was completed in July 2011, when 125 were chosen from over 1000 applications and it was considered so successful that a second application process was started and runs until 12th October 2012. There is now a very real danger that selection onto the programme will become a requirement for selection as a candidate for election both to Parliament and local councils. On the other hand, participation on the programme may also give activists a better idea of the real politics (or lack of politics) of potential candidates.