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Left vs left: the battle for control of Labour pitches Unite against Momentum

Replacing the party’s general secretary with a thoroughbred Corbynite is a priority for the Labour left. The question is: who?

There is an anecdote that David Cameron tells about the coalition talks between his party and the Liberal Democrats. Danny Alexander explained excitably that the agreement would have to be ratified by the Lib Dem parliamentary party, the federal executive and, ultimately, its members. “How does it work for you?” the future chief secretary to the Treasury asked the future prime minister. To which William Hague – and Cameron likes to do this part in an imitation of Hague’s Yorkshire accent – gestured to Cameron and explained: “He is the leader. He decides.”

Even in times of relative weakness, a Conservative leader enjoys a level of power over his or her party that their Liberal Democrat or Labour counterpart would find intoxicating. Even a Labour leader as powerful as Jeremy Corbyn is currently has limitations on his authority, including the stipulation that his deputy must sit in the cabinet or shadow cabinet and have a place on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC). Then there are the trade union general secretaries, who are well represented on the NEC and control half the delegates on the floor of the Labour party conference. And while the Conservative leader can choose his or her own party chairman, for Labour the process is more complicated. Candidates are shortlisted by the nine members of the NEC officers’ group, and elected by the 39 members of the full NEC.

All this is worth bearing in mind during the contest to succeed Iain McNicol, who, after seven years, stepped down as Labour’s general secretary in late February. The role is a vital one because the “gen sec” is responsible ultimately for hiring and firing staff in the party’s Southside headquarters in London, and in the regional offices, which are the only remaining bastions of Corbynscepticism. These local branches can help favoured candidates by feeding them useful information about the timing of selections to replace MPs, and they also adjudicate in local party disputes. Replacing McNicol with a thoroughbred Corbynite is therefore a priority for the Labour left. The question is: who?

The leader’s office has a preferred candidate: Jennie Formby, formerly the political director of Unite and now the trade union’s representative in the south-east. She is a close ally of Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, with whom she has a grown-up son. Formby is a long-time supporter of the Labour left and of Corbyn’s leadership, and Unite’s stock is high in the party thanks to the millions of pounds the union contributed to the 2017 general election campaign.

But Formby has made enemies during her long career in the movement, and not just on the right of the party. There is also a feeling among other affiliated trade unions that Unite is over-represented at the top of Labour. Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, is a member of Unite and a close associate of McCluskey’s, while Andrew Murray, McCluskey’s chief of staff, works for the Labour leader for a day and a half each week. Unite has three members, including Formby, on the NEC: two elected at party conference and a third, Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland, by dint of her position as Labour treasurer. Those undercurrents partly explain why Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, has also put his name forward for the general secretary job.

Supporters of both candidates – Lansman and Formby – believe the contest will decide whether the party has been truly opened up, or if it is merely exchanging top-down control from its right flank for top-down control from its left. It’s just that both sides believe they stand for the former, and that their opponents represent the latter.

The truth is that neither Lansman nor Formby is a convincing champion of pluralism and party democracy. Lansman essentially rewrote Momentum’s constitution to remain firmly in control of it, and the organisation’s leadership regularly overrules the wishes of local branches. As for Formby, surely no one carves out a successful career in Labour’s internal politics without being a good fixer. So the real split is between two clashing personalities, rather than being any great ideological battle. And that means the job could go to someone else. The only other declared candidate is Paul Hilder, who applied unsuccessfully last time, when Ed Miliband’s preferred candidate, Chris Lennie, lost to McNicol.

Hilder is the co-founder of Crowdpac, an online fundraising tool for activists, and worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US. Like Lansman and Formby, he has impeccable Corbynite credentials. But unlike Formby and Lansman, he has made no enemies on the NEC. (One Corbynsceptic NEC member claims to “go for the lesser of two evils” when the left takes on the left – but says they’ll be forced to flip a coin if it’s a choice between Formby and Lansman.)

Yet as so often in Labour politics, the real decision could be made before the NEC gets to vote. Shortlisting will be handled by the smaller officers’ group, which is dominated by the big trade unions, but where both Corbyn and his deputy, Tom Watson, also have a vote. The trick would be to create a shortlist that looks strong but tilts the field towards one candidate. Which might mean ensuring that Formby is the only woman on the shortlist, facilitating her elevation – or, conversely, guaranteeing that she has to go head-to-head against a woman who is on the left but without her long history of bruising the feelings of fellow Labour power brokers.

Despite the upheavals since 2015, what hasn’t changed in Labour is that the hand that controls the rule-book controls the world. Corbyn might never get the complete command of his party that Cameron once boasted of, but the Labour leader securing his preferred candidate would be another important sign of his strength. 

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.

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.