I am one of a handful of people in the running to be the next General Secretary of the Labour Party. I believe that all the candidates for Labour’s top management position should be laying out their ideas for renewal openly and discussing them with National Executive Committee members and the Labour movement as a whole. Our agendas, qualities and track records should be scrutinised in the public square, as well as behind closed doors.
In 2011, I was an outsider candidate for this role, and one of the eight people interviewed by the NEC’s shortlisting panel. This is the first time I have told the story of what happened then. Having previously played a leadership role in building new networked movements like Avaaz and 38 Degrees, I was in a senior management position with Oxfam, leading their global campaigns team and doing organisational change, innovation and renewal.
I had been a supporter of Ed Miliband, but – like many of those who worked on his leadership campaign – I was becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of follow-through of his agenda. It became clear that the NEC was polarising between two candidates: Chris Lennie, a somewhat Blairite fundraising specialist, and Iain McNicol, a unionist championing community organising and change. And Ed was leaning uncomfortably toward Chris; under attack from the Murdoch press, he worried about being seen as too close to the unions.
Shortly before the application deadline, I was encouraged by well-known leaders from different movements and traditions and from the “netroots” to put myself forward as a potential compromise candidate – a social entrepreneur, seasoned manager and campaign innovator who could refocus the party on building for the future and delivering an election-winning campaign, rather than remaining mired in the factional conflicts of the past. I also received brief encouragement from the Leader’s office.
I am not naïve: I knew even then that people lobby, organise and brief against each other for years in order to gain hold of this important position. Could I come through the middle and defeat the establishment candidates in two weeks? It seemed almost impossible. But under pressure, I agreed to step up and put new ideas on the table.
I have just posted my 2011 pitch for the role of General Secretary on Medium. It centred on the idea of “movement organising”, which is my specialist subject and has since become mainstream. I believe it stands the test of time. I proposed to build a renewed, modern and democratic party with deep roots in all our communities, with an effortless command of the new media landscape, and the confidence and strength to win time and again.
I laid out plans to reboot Labour with a 21st century toolkit of political organisation: from the internet and small donor fundraising to community organising and democratic reform. I was clear about the hard graft of managing change, and the need to motivate people with a vision of how we win. I argued the case for a bold and competent outsider, rather than a machine insider. I highlighted my work growing millions-strong campaigns on everything from the Murdoch press and anti-austerity to the Middle East and climate action, which positioned me to reach many more potential supporters and members. I warned that ambitions for membership growth were far too low, and member on-boarding and supporter journeys almost non-existent.
I promised a permanent campaign to support our programme, combining face-to-face community organising with internet campaigns to bring wave upon wave of like-minded people into our party. I said, “It’s time to unite and revive all wings of our Party. To focus our anger on those who deserve it.” Finally, I promised to be a very tough referee in any internal disagreements.
The NEC didn’t know what to make of all this then. Of course, I was knocked out in the first round, and only Lennie and McNicol were shortlisted. I then met privately with Iain McNicol, who was the underdog but seemed like the candidate whose agenda was closest to my own, and sent an email to my supporters headlined, “Why a trade unionist can be the next Labour General Secretary”.
“Conventional opinion says that Red Ed Miliband and the party cannot make a unionist their next general secretary,” I wrote. “Conventional opinion also said that Rupert Murdoch would always be the kingmaker of British politics. Conventional opinion is very often wrong.” I received an immediate call from Ed Miliband’s office telling me that I was being “very unhelpful”. But Iain won the final vote by an inch; the democratic Labour movement had chosen the better candidate of the final two, and rejected the leader’s uncertain choice.
There has been a great deal of water under the bridge since then. I went to Change.org, then co-founded the political crowdfunding platform Crowdpac with maverick right-winger Steve Hilton and Silicon Valley leaders. I have spent time with the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Macron team, Momentum and many other political innovators around the world.
This year, as Labour chooses its next general secretary, I was encouraged again from many quarters to re-enter the field. But I was in Brazil at the time, the NEC officers chose to impose an extraordinary short timeline, an “inevitability campaign” was immediately mounted on behalf of one candidate and the pressure was on for a woman to be appointed.
What finally spurred me to change my mind and enter the contest was hearing that other left-wing women were being pressured not to throw their hats into the ring, so that a single candidate could be crowned. This is not how the Labour Party I believe in should behave, and it is not how the Labour Party will win the next general election.
I am now calling for other candidates to join me in a live-streamed “member hustings”, following the example of civic movement MoveOn’s presidential forums in the US. I have also been the first candidate to welcome MPs’ call for a PLP hustings, provided they agree for it to be live-streamed. And I hope without expectation that the NEC will reconsider this farcically short timeline.
Today I am also launching a manifesto of ideas under the hashtag #GS4TheMany. We need a “million member drive” to open up the party and build its strength, and to embrace the “big organising” innovations of Sanders, Momentum and Macron. It’s time to “open the machine”, with a radical but even-handed process of organisational change and renewal, including big shifts which I will talk about elsewhere. “Deep democracy” is needed to renew Labour’s dialogue between members, representatives and unions. And instead of zero-sum factional conflicts, let’s return to being “a broad church, facing out” to the diversity of the country and building a new common sense. I will say more about these ideas soon. But I have more: for instance, how about a renewed union-Labour partnership, with bold policies like union auto-enrolment, and collaboration around digital and organising strategies.
I am serious about my own candidacy. I believe that I have the ideas and capabilities to be an excellent General Secretary, working inclusively to transform the Labour machine into a 21st century movement. But I continue to call loudly for other left-wing women to enter the race. It will take courage for them to do so against entrenched opposition; and an equally qualified candidate may only emerge if she has sufficient signals of support that she can be confident of victory.
The stakes are very high for the Labour party and movement today: I am specifically calling out union leaders to refuse seductive blandishments of transactional deals over selections, and to look at the bigger picture. How can we build a broad campaign to win the next election decisively, and to reshape the country for good? Who among the potential candidates could best work with others to build an open and transformational party?