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Will an “outsider” become Labour general secretary?

Keir Starmer, no stranger to changing the culture of institutions, may seek a successor to Jennie Formby from outside the trade union movement. 

By Patrick Maguire

Almost all of the mooted candidates to succeed Jennie Formby as general secretary of the Labour Party have one thing in common: they are either party lifers or trade union officials. But might this time be different? Keir Starmer is no stranger to managing institutions at a time of upheaval – most notably the Crown Prosecution Service when austerity hit – and has made no secret of his desire to overhaul the culture of the party he now leads.

One symbolic way to do that might be favouring a general secretary candidate from outside the traditional labour movement. Paul Hilder, founder of online campaign organisation Crowdpac, student of the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, Momentumite and an ad-hoc adviser to Labour during the 2019 election, has run twice as that candidate with no success: in 2011 and 2018. 

Though Starmer has spoken of his desire to emulate Sanders in the past, Hilder told the New Statesman he will not apply to succeed Formby. But he has suggested two “outsiders” who might:

 “It’s never been more important for Labour to have a general secretary who can deliver the root and branch change required to renew the party and turn it outward to the country, while acting as an honest broker to build unity, decency and respect. It’s a huge task, but there are plenty of promising candidates  for example, Laura Parker or Lisa Johnson, who should have been in the running last time, or Bob Kerslake, whose unparalleled management experience could prove invaluable. I will not be a candidate this time. But I will be delighted to advise on strategy and campaigns, as I do with other progressive parties internationally. I trust that Keir and the NEC will invite a broad field of applicants and run an open, meritocratic process. The days of stitch-ups in smoke-filled rooms are over.”

We can discount Lisa Johnson, of course, as the mooted candidate of the GMB and an early favourite. But Laura Parker, one of Starmer’s highest profile left backers, came to organised Labour politics via Momentum. Bob Kerslake, the former head of the Home Civil Service and sometime adviser and consultant to John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, is not a member of the Labour Party at all but still sits in the Lords as a crossbencher. What he and Parker both have in common, like Starmer, is experience of the civil service. (Kerslake tells me he won’t be applying on grounds of age and not being directly involved in the party.)

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Of course, whether Starmer wants a candidate of a different background and skillset to the union-sponsored contenders usually on offer is a separate question to whether or not he can install one. The answer to that question, of course, is that the power of installation is in fact vested in the party’s ruling National Executive Committee. If one or another union’s representatives on the NEC withdraw their support, the job of assembling a reliable majority gets much harder for the leader. As such, Starmer might decide that making a statement isn’t worth making enemies – and his own life harder – around the NEC table.