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 decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era