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Commons Confidential: Is Jeremy Hunt preparing to check out from his role in the cabinet?

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

A prized snout whispered that Jeremy Hunt assured Theresa May during January’s botched cabinet reshuffle that he’d be prepared to check out quietly this summer if the PM spared him. The reprieved un-healthy secretary departed No 10 with social care in his doctor’s bag, rather than a P45. The clock’s ticking, however, on the cabinet bed blocker.

Imagine if Ukip’s purple rage were found to have held a private Brextremist meeting in London’s Russian Embassy, or Tory Trumpists had assembled in the official London residence of US ambassador Woody Johnson to talk post-EU trade deals. Remainers would create merry hell, accusing Leavers of secretly conspiring with foreign powers to undermine Britain. So the UK Europhile army’s use of Europe House, the London outpost of the European Commission, for a cloak-and-dagger conclave on “Where Next for Brexit?” probably wasn’t the smartest choice. The list of invitees included Gina Miller, Peter Mandelson, Andrew Adonis, AC Grayling, Alastair Campbell, Peter Kellner, Ros Altmann, Patience Wheatcroft, Caroline Lucas, Stephen Gethins and Tom Brake. I wonder if those who did attend made their excuses and left by the back door.

Chris Grayling’s big new initiative is Hedgehog Highways for Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. MPs were surprised to open epistles from the Transport Secretary urging them to cut holes in garden fences as snow was grinding Britain to a halt. Prickly “failing” Grayling’s timing was as impeccable as ever.

Is that occasional Marxist, John McDonnell, mellowing? Labour’s teak-tough shadow chancellor slipped a book to deputy Peter Dowd. The tome by Roman orator Cicero, How to Win an Argument: an Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion, was inscribed with a comradely “To Peter, the Cicero of the Shadow Treasury Team. Best Wishes, John.” Maybe McDonnell has run out of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book to distribute, George Osborne having vanished with his last edition.

Deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle has expanded his political menagerie. To the Rottweiler with a great clunking paw called Gordon (Brown) and snappy terrier Betty (Boothroyd) is added Boris, an African grey parrot. Hoyle has taught the noisy bird to squawk “soon be Christmas”, which, even in March, is truer than professional liar Johnson’s Brexit guff about how life would be spiffing outside
the EU.

Tram spotter Iain Stewart, chair of the all-party light rail group and a Tory member of the transport committee, learned the painful way why it’s advisable to hold on tight. I’m told the Milton Keynes South MP broke his wrist on a delegation to Germany. 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

Photo: Getty
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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.