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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot