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?

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

This article appears in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war