What the row over who is Labour’s next general secretary is really about

Both sides see it as central control versus a genuinely open approach. They just can't agree on which.


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One of my nerdier ways of making myself feel inadequate is to re-read old New Statesman political columns when I am feeling low on inspiration. Something that I find particularly striking about the two years when John Smith led the Labour party is how difficult it was to describe what the underlying divisions at the top of the party were really about. Smith had been endorsed by essentially everybody in the party and everyone at the top of the parliamentary party and in the movement with any clout was in essence a Smithite. There were disagreements but the shape of them – and the broad outlines of what that meant as far as the party’s future was concerned didn’t become immediately apparent until Tony Blair became leader and Gordon Brown his shadow chancellor.

A similar difficulty occurs in explaining why the modern Labour party does things. Take the brewing row over who the party’s next general secretary should be. All of the mooted candidates are all on the left of the party: Jennie Formby, regional secretary for union Unite in the South East and the Labour leader's office's preferred candidate, Jon Lansman, the founder and chief of Momentum, and Lisa Johnston, the political director of the GMB trades union. So too is Anneliese Midgley, Unite’s political director and formerly of the leader’s office, widely mooted as a possible candidate but not one who can really go for it now that Formby has declared.

There are a series of overlapping rows. The first is concern in the trade union movement and on the Labour left about Unite’s outsized clout. In addition to Unite’s representatives on the party’s ruling national executive, Diana Holland, Labour’s Treasurer, is also a member of Unite whose day job is as the union’s assistant general secretary. Not only does that mean that Unite has a large presence on the NEC, they also have three members of Labour’s nine strong NEC officers group.  Added to that, Andrew Murray, Len McCluskey’s chief of staff, is working for the leader’s office on a part-time consultancy basis, while Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, is closely allied to the Unite leadership.

Anxiety about Unite’s outsized clout is a long-running grumble that never seems to metastasize into serious opposition to Unite getting its people elected to key roles, but may be doing so now. Adding to that political problem, Formby has been on the party’s ruling national executive committee for a long time and has made enemies there, while her tenure as Unite’s political director – in charge of, among other things, helping to get Unite’s people selected – also left plenty of people feeling bruised.

All of that, added to the longstanding belief at the top of Momentum that Lansman is ideally suited to the role of general secretary – one of that body’s own national executive committee floated the idea to me as early as 2016 – means the Corbynite power brokers are squaring off against each other, with the potential for a third candidate to come down the middle.

The row is also about control. All sides of the Corbyn project like to talk up their commitment to the rights of the membership and the other side’s love of a fix, but the reality is that the divide is not that neat. Among supporters of Formby and Lansman, you have people who think Labour should be a genuinely member-led organisation, and people who prefer central control.

A more genuine divide is over method. Formby’s backers in the leader’s office have a more convivial relationship with the new left-wing blogs, particularly Skwawkbox, a website that many of Lansman’s closest allies find distasteful. (As a result, briefing the case for Lansman to step aside to that website may have been something of a blunder.)

Whoever prevails, or if a third candidate comes down the middle, we will get an idea of which of the emerging new factions at the top of Labour is currently in the ascendant.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.