Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Lansman’s royal bid

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The election to Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee of old Bennite Jon Lansman motivated a snout to disinter an unlikely 1984 royal conspiracy by the Momentum guru. The plan was for Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council to co-opt the Queen in the fight against Thatcher.

The plot failed, though Betty did open the Thames Barrier. Three antagonised left-wing republicans, including Frances Morrell, then head of the Inner London Education Authority, wrote a lament for their courtly comrade. Mandatory reselection for monarchs remains a constitutional aspiration.

Oliver Cromwell’s caught in a game of cat and mouse between parliamentary authorities and rebels with a grievance. A shadowy cell of MPs is suspected of turning a bust of the Lord Protector to face the wall in a belated protest against the 17th century “Butcher of Drogheda” massacring Ireland’s Catholics. The curator’s office, tired of rotating it back, installed a “please do not touch” sign in the hope Old Ironsides may rest in peace on his plinth. Armed police shouldn’t shoot if they disturb a gang in balaclavas creeping about in the dead of night. They’ll be twisting Cromwell, not blowing the place up.

Tooting karaoke queen Rosena Allin-Khan is a woman of many voices. Labour’s shadow sports minister rejected a five-album Sony deal to qualify instead as a doctor before swapping her stethoscope for Westminster’s political cacophony. MCs spoke clearly or triggered screams when announcing Allin-Khan’s band: The Motherfunkers.

Touring the country to raise funds for Labour at screenings of a film about his life, fearsome former coal miner Dennis Skinner MP was confronted by an irked Nottinghamshire man demanding to know why he calls it “scab county”. “Because,” boomed the Beast of Bolsover, “you didn’t strike in 1926, then again in 1984. Is that enough for you?” It was.

More Corbyn than Corbyn, extinguished Labour shadow fire minister Chris Williamson has more time to make videos now he has quit. Derby’s vegan bricklayer increased by four to 26 the comrades thanked in the re-edited credits of a socialist Xmas message after Emily Thornberry, Ian Lavery, Angela Rayner and Barry Gardiner complained they’d been ignored. Others overlooked should form an orderly queue outside Williamson’s office.

“Hello, I’m Henry. I’ve taken over from Nigel.” Girlfriend dumper and Ukip leader Henry Bolton airbrushed Paul Nuttall and Diane James from party history when he introduced himself as heir to Farage. Will the next leader ignore Henry Who? 

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 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.