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 is Associate Director at IPPR.

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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war