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.