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Jeremy Corbyn is getting better at command and control – but he can’t escape his old promises

The problem is that effective politics is rarely kind or gentle.

In a way, the row that broke out this weekend at Labour’s National Policy Forum is not news at all. Realising that their preferred candidate had no prospect of winning, the nine officers of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee voted to halt the election for the chair of the NPF, saying that insufficient notice had been given of the contest.

The notional justification is that the party’s rules require that NPF delegates “are entitled to receive copies of relevant documents at least seven days before the Forum takes place” – in this case, candidate statements. Mike Creighton, a Corbynsceptic former Labour staffer who knows the rulebook far better than I do, argues that this interpretation of the rules is bunk on his blog.

My personal view is that the rules are vague enough that NEC officers’ interpretation of the seven day section just about stands out. In any case, it’s wholly irrevelant:  “using the rulebook to fuck over people” as one former staffer at Labour HQ once described his job to me, is an old, old, old, old Labour trick. It’s also an old, old, old, new Labour trick. Provided you have a majority among the nine NEC officers and the 39 members of the full NEC, that’s essentially all you need.

Indeed, the irony of this particular row is that if in July 2015, you had told someone in that in two years' time, Labour’s power players would halt an election to prevent the National Policy Forum electing Ann Black as its chair, you’d probably assume that Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall were set to win the contest.

So why are people so angry? In part, it’s because Labour politics is a game where the faction(s) that controls interpretation of the rulebook abuses it and where the faction(s) that don’t complain about it, but that the people who are complaining about it now have a bigger media platform than the people who used to complain in the world pre-Jeremy Corbyn. (That the press is considerably more Corbyn-hostile than it was towards New Labour in its rule-bending pomp helps, too.)

But it’s also down to three other factors. The first is that the level of political tolerance for belligerent political fixing is, however momentarily, at all-time-low because of the wider cultural changes sweeping the Western world post-Weinstein. Shouting over someone – in this case the NPF’s vice-chair, Katrina Murray, is not  good look, and also genuinely upset many of those present. That tied into the second factor, which is that in 2018, everyone has a camera.

The third is good old-fashioned incompetence on the part of the leader’s office and particularly some of their trade union allies. (Although there has been a lot of talk about “Momentum’s” role in bringing the election to a halt, ultimately there is only one NEC officer who could be described as a representative of “Momentum”. That is Christine Shawcroft, who did not vote in any case. This was a stitch-up by the trade union members of the officers’ group.)

Regardless, there was a comfortable majority among the NEC officers, and they could have quietly cancelled the vote on the morning of the meeting and conducted their argument over its election behind closed doors, rather than produce the ugly scenes that they did.

And while the leader’s office is a noticeably sharper operation than it once was, they are still living with the consequence of two foolish pledges made in Jeremy Corbyn’s first campaign for leader: the first is a vow for “gentler, kinder politics”. The reality is that politics not gentle and is often unkind. The second was his promise of “straight-talking honest politics”, again, not an adjective that is often associated with political effectiveness.

The lasting damage of this incident however may be to the leadership campaigns of Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry, both hitherto doing good work balancing the needs of Shadow Cabinet loyalty (and quietly courting Labour members) without egregiously offending Corbynsceptics among the parliamentary Labour party. Both deeply upset and angered Labour MPs with their defence of what occurred on Saturday on the Sunday shows (Rayner appeared on Marr, Thornberry on Peston). The biggest legacy of this weekend’s row may be the permanent disruption of that equilibrium – and with it, the increased likelihood that the party’s right will mount its own challenger for the leadership next time.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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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.