Yesterday morning’s scoop by Dan Hodges on Chris Lennie becoming the next General Secretary of the Labour party has sent the blogosphere a flutter. Labour List editor, Mark Ferguson, has argued that a more transparent selection process is necessary. Johanna Baxter has called for the National Executive Committee, of which she is an elected member, to make the decision on the basis of merit. And outgoing Fabian General Secretary, Sunder Katwala, has detailed why the decision will be a test case for the more open approach that Ed Miliband called for in Wales on Saturday. But the most depressing part of Dan Hodges piece is the view expressed by one party official that: “Chris [Lennie] is coming in with one brief and one brief only. Cut costs and sort out the finances. That’s it.”
If this is true, it shows a remarkable lack of ambition from Labour’s top brass on the role of the General Secretary. Sorting the party’s finances is absolutely critical but so too is reengaging the party with the public, the subject of Ed’s speech on Saturday. As Rachel Sylvester argues in today’s Times, political parties “must loosen up or lose out”.
Without an advocate in Victoria Street for the “cultural glasnost” that Nick Anstead and I called for in our 2009 Fabian pamphlet, “The Change We Need“, Labour will fail to consolidate its recent increase in membership or roll out the best practice in grassroots campaigning which has been seen in a handful of local parties. There are a lot of good ideas bubbling around Labour’s grassroots. The Labour Values website documents terrific examples of activist recruitment in Birmingham Edgbaston, community meetings in Blackburn, and effecting canvassing techniques in Bethnal Green and Bow among many others. But this best practice will be lost if the party does not make its roll out to the rest of the country an explicit goal of the party (and therefore of the General Secretary). Indeed, many of the reforms that Ed himself advocates are likely to be lost without someone at the top of the organisation devoted to their implementation.
But even if the cutting of costs and sorting of finances was the only role expected of the next General Secretary it would make little sense to limit the field to a veteran of Victoria Street. The Labour party has struggled with its fundraising since the cash for honours incident. High value donors had been falling away long before some disappeared in protest at Ed Miliband’s election, the 1000 club (composed of donors making £1000 contributions per year) is understaffed and therefore not maximising its potential to raise cash, much of the party’s additional short money has been wasted on two special advisors for each shadow cabinet member, and the effort to raise cash through online appeals from the grassroots has suffered from a degree of flat footedness especially since the general election. In all of these areas, there is much that can be learned from the charitable sector, from online campaigns, and from the US. Chris Lennie may the best candidate for the job but why narrow the field at this stage?
Important though it was for Miliband to call on Saturday for Labour party conference to be “legitimate in the way its decisions are made“, it will be worth nothing if other decisions of critical importance are made behind closed doors. In addition to Mark Ferguson’s important list of questions for the party and its leadership, the membership and public have a right to know the criteria for the selection of General Secretary and the composition of the short-listing panel. After going back on his support for an elected Party Chair and doing little to advance the cause of primaries that he used to endorse, Ed Miliband is on shaky ground as someone committed to modernising the party. He needs to act quickly to show that his words on Saturday were worth something.
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.