I’d describe myself as a friend of Progress. I certainly don’t think that the organisation has become “a party within the party”, nor do I think the GMB’s motion at party conference can do anything but hurt Labour.
But Progress does have serious questions to answer on the organisation’s funding. It’s frankly bizarre that Progress called for Open Primaries in selections for parliamentary candidates, yet only in April this year did it publish who funds it. There’s no doubt that Progress is well-funded, to the tune of £368,000 per annum, a clear sign of the vitality of Progress. With this in mind, why does it continue to take donations from groups whose values may contradict those of the Labour party?
Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has spoken out against human rights violations in Bahrain, and even called for the Formula 1 race there to be cancelled:
Bahrain is not Syria. But that does not mean F1 should collude in presenting to the world an image of an island paradise that is far removed from the violence taking place in the streets and villages just walking distance from the race track.
Yet, one of Progress’s donors is Bell Pottinger, a lobbying firm that has worked on behalf of the government of Bahrain. After 7 died following a police clampdown early in 2011, protesters gathered outside Bell Pottinger’s London office with placards reading ‘You can’t spin the unspinnable’. It made little difference, Bell Pottinger’s Chair Lord Bell told PR Week that he felt under no pressure to resign the account. Subsequently, as the situation worsened the account was frozen. Bahrain isn’t the only authoritarian regime Bell Pottinger has represented in recent years, the roll call includes the Yemen, Sri Lanka and a country I feel strongly about, Belarus. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:
Bell Pottinger boasted to undercover Bureau journalists that it helped engineer the lifting of an EU travel ban on the man dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’. Part of the PR team included former British diplomat Sir David Richmond.
Belarus is known as Europe’s last dictatorship. In recent years, Labour Ministers and MPs including Douglas Alexander and Progress contributor Denis MacShane have condemned the dictatorship in Minsk. Yet, Progress has taken money from an organisation that used to work for that dictatorship. It doesn’t make sense.
Progress also accepted up to £7,500 worth of funding from another lobby group, the European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS). As I outline in the report ‘Azerbaijan’s silenced voices’, TEAS is not an ideal affiliate for any progressive organisation:
The London-based TEAS is one of the slickest and most well-funded lobbying operations anywhere in Europe. The President of TEAS is Taleh Heydarov, the son of Kamaladdin Heydarov, described in a US embassy cable leaked by Wikileaks as possibly ‘more powerful than the president himself… Heydarov controls more visible assets and wealth within the country than the president’
The leaked cable explains how Heydarov built his power network (from his position as Azerbaijan’s Chairman of the State Customs Committee, and his current position as Minister of Emergency Situations) which includes a paramilitary unit with anti-aircraft battery, a unit of building inspectors that can stop any construction project in the country they deem to be “unsafe”, and a family Airbus A319 corporate jet. The Wikileaks cable goes on to outline the structure of the company: “Many of the family’s operations are part of the ‘Gilan’, Qabala’… or ‘United Enterprises International’ family of companies”, which are involved in construction, tourism, banking and have monopoly control of the juice drinks market. All of these companies are registered at the same address as TEAS, and TEAS is described as an “affiliate” of United Enterprises International.
The European Azerbaijan Society and Bell Pottinger are not ideal partners for Progress. In order to win the argument over its role within the Labour party it needs to be clearer about the type of donations it will and will not accept – and draw clearer lines. Labour activists and the unions are right to question the Progress of today. I hope this marks the beginning of reform, not the end.
Update: Progress strategy candidates asked about its future funding
I’ve asked the candidates for Progress’s strategy board the following question: –
“Would you use your role on the strategic board to ensure that all donors match Labour’s values?”
You can read their responses to my question here.