Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were quick to disparage Derek Draper and the other lobbyists caught boasting of their government contacts by the Observer last month. Draper and the rest were conceited young men of little importance in New Labour’s scheme of things, they assured us.
But the truth is rather different. Draper is certainly a braggart – but he has played a significant part in Labour politics in recent years, most importantly as controller of the glossy Blairite propaganda magazine Progress and its associated organisation. Two of the other main characters in the Observer story, Neal Lawson and Ben Lucas of the lobbying company LLM, have had major roles in sustaining a Blairite intellectual current inside Labour, through the journal Renewal and the ‘ideas network’ Nexus.
Draper set up Progress in late 1995 while working for Mandelson, just before the publication of The Blair Revolution, a dreary book-length account of New Labour’s politics supposedly authored by Mandelson and Roger Liddle but actually written largely by Draper. (Liddle subsequently hired Draper as a lobbyist at Prima Europe, and it was Liddle, by now a government adviser, who was caught by the Observer promising favours to what he thought was an American utilities company but was in fact the investigative journalist Greg Palast.)
Progress was intended as a magazine that would never contradict Labour’s official line, and from the start it enjoyed the support of the party’s most powerful figures. Eight issues have appeared so far, all but the first full colour throughout, the latest at the end of June this year. Mandelson, Blair, Gordon Brown and Blair aide Philip Gould have been regular contributors since the beginning. Other contributors have included Liddle and a host of other government advisers, most members of Blair’s first cabinet (including Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Harriet Harman, Clare Short, Donald Dewar, George Robertson and David Clarke) and a welter of other Labour politicians, many of them first elected as MPs in the 1997 election.
Progress’s patrons include Gerald Kaufman and Baroness Jay. It has had substantial financial backing from David Sainsbury, the supermarket magnate who once bankrolled the SDP; he was put in touch with Draper by Blair himself.
Progress also organises ‘political education’ events at which Labour activists can meet senior government figures. This summer, speakers at its weekend schools include ministers Chris Smith, George Foulkes, John Spellar, John Reid, Joyce Quin, George Howarth, Derek Fatchett and Peter Hain, members of the Number Ten policy unit (including Liddle) and various party officials. The goal of these events is simple: to build up a cadre of Blairite activists in local Labour parties who can be called upon to organise in support of the leadership in internal party elections and on policy.
The efforts of Lawson and Lucas, at least in recent years, have been less visible but no less important. Even though they are only in their thirties, they are both political veterans who in the late 1980s were stalwarts of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, the once hard-left internal Labour pressure group that in the mid-1980s transformed itself into a pro-leadership faction.
After the 1992 election, the LCC put most of its efforts into producing a quarterly journal, Renewal, of which Lawson became business manager. Renewal in turn spawned Nexus, an electronic ‘ideas network’ largely composed of academics, in 1996. Lawson and Lucas, both by then working as lobbyists after spells as aides for Gordon Brown and Jack Straw respectively, played a decisive role in getting Nexus off the ground as the key members of its ‘core working group’.
Renewal was the nearest thing to an intellectual forum that Labour’s modernisers had between its launch and the New Labour take-over of the New Statesman in 1996; and Nexus has provided the Labour leadership with a useful platform for developing big ideas. It was at a Nexus event last month, for example, that Jack Straw gave his much-hyped speech on the ‘third way’; there has also been a Nexus seminar with Blair at Number Ten Downing Street.
Add the role of their lobby firm LLM as a conduit between business and government, and it is clear that Lawson and Lucas were, until exposed by Palast, just as useful to New Labour as Draper. The disgrace of all three cannot be lightly dismissed.