Iain McNicol is the right man for the job

And now Labour's new general secretary needs to address three big challenges.

While today's headlines have rightly been dominated by the select committee interrogations of the police and Murdoch family, on the quiet Labour took an important step towards winning the next election. No, David Cameron has not admitted that he knew that Andy Coulson knew about phone hacking. Today's development has been rather more prosaic: just before lunch, Labour's National Executive Committee unanimously affirmed its decision to appoint a new General Secretary by the name of Iain McNicol.

McNicol is by no means a household name, even within the Labour Party, but over 20 years of grassroots work for the Labour movement, he has proved himself to be absolutely the right person to see through what Ed Miliband has started in refounding the Labour party as a community-based movement.

McNicol has worked his way up the Labour Party and knows how the organisation works inside out. He worked for Labour Students in the early 1990s and went on to become a Labour organiser in Scotland and London.

More recently he has worked for the GMB union, which represents 600,000 workers including -- inconveniently for many on the right -- half from the private sector. During this time he has developed his organisational and representative skills and built strong links between the union grassroots and its leadership.

Unlike the caricature of some career campaigners, Iain also has his own hinterland. He lists skiing, snowboarding, swimming and windsurfing among his interests and, somewhat intimidatingly, is a black belt in karate.

The focus and fearlessness needed in martial arts will help McNicol confront the multiple challenges facing the Labour party. Critical to this is his role helping the party replace the command and control methods of the 1990s with what McNicol called yesterday, "a dramatic decentralisation of party power, decision making and resourcing to empower staff, members and candidates around the UK".

Up and down the country during the 2010 general election there were well documented examples of how organisers like Caroline Badley in Birmingham Edgbaston used the latest campaigning techniques to recruit and motivate volunteers while others engaged in community organising or developed sophisticated 'get out the vote' operations. But these were often isolated examples.

Now the party faces three big challenges. First, how will it widen its base of funders so that it can do more and become less reliant on large donors and trades unions for its resources. Second, how can the Labour party refound itself as the central organisation for local change in every community of the country? Third, how can the party best use technology to enhance its campaigning work and reach out to ever more people?

Much of this is already taking place with dedicated teams in Victoria Street working on 'webinars' to train members in online tools and organisations like the Movement for Change bringing community organising advice to CLPs up and down the country. Iain McNicol will take over at the top in September dedicated to prioritising these reforms and seeing them through. As someone who backed Ed Miliband's campaign from the start, he will be particularly well placed to win the trust of the leaders' office.

But as friends of McNicol have told me, he does not want to do this alone. Instead, he wants to lead an outward looking party that will call on members and supporters to roll their sleeves up and get involved.

So there is now an onus on all of us who have called for the Labour Party to reform its structures and embrace the role of community organising and modern technology to get involved and support our new General Secretary in delivering his vision of a new party.

Will Straw co-edited with Nick Anstead the Fabian Society pamphlet, "The change we need: what Britain can learn from Obama's victory". He writes here in a personal capacity.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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