Labour’s Next General Secretary Must Be Elected

by Aaron Bastani

24 February 2018

Paul the Archivist /Flickr

Last night Iain McNicol sensationally quit as general secretary of the Labour party. In previous years similar announcements were relatively unimportant, and if you asked the average member who McNicol replaced in 2011 you would be met with a blank stare. Now, with Labour the largest left of centre party in Europe and internal intrigue at a premium among journalists it became a breaking story. ‘McNicol’ even trended on Twitter.

While most of the online response to his statement was negative, the revisionism from his supporters would have shamed even Joseph Stalin. One Labour MP tweeted how his departure was a “real loss”, with McNicol – according to them – responsible both for getting the party out of the red and more than tripling its membership.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. The hundreds of thousands who joined Labour after May 2015 did so because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, dramatically changing the politics of an organisation McNicol had already overseen for four years in the process. As a result, he didn’t like them.

How else can you explain a general secretary using party funds to take his own members to court, arguing the Labour rule book allowed the national executive committee (NEC) sufficient discretion to bar 130,000 new members from deciding the next party leader?

How else can you explain how, at the last general election, Momentum could have spent substantially more with a stroke of McNicol’s pen – but he chose not to do it, meaning Momentum had to operate on a budget that massively reduced their impact (which was magnificent anyway). At the time I wondered if he actually wanted Labour to win at all.

So naturally I welcome the resignation of Iain McNicol – a man whose irrational defunding of marginals at the last general election may even have cost Labour the keys to 10 Downing Street.

But last night’s resignation has to be about more than the demise of a single party official. Because while McNicol’s name is now a byword for a party machine hellbent on opposing democracy, his successor must be the catalyst for something better. 

Historically it has been the trade unions that decide who fills the role. McNicol was a former GMB official, while his predecessor, Ray Collins, had previously worked for Unite. Now it will be Unite – who stood firmly behind the Corbyn leadership when the party establishment tried to scupper it – who will expect to install their person. The leading candidates, Andrew Murray and Jennie Formby, would both be excellent. Personally, I would prefer whichever candidate has the endorsement of the leader’s office and Momentum. Like so many others I have the deepest trust in those at the helm of the Corbyn movement.

But there is a broader point that needs to be addressed. The essence of Corbynism is about empowering ordinary people: whether it’s the party’s membership in internal elections and activism, or the general public in believing a different society is possible. This is the new politics – public, principled and empowering – and let’s be honest, it is the opposite of backroom deals.

Which is why the role of general secretary should be elected, with Labour members choosing McNicol’s long-term replacement. For this year that likely isn’t possible, simply by virtue of the fact that the party’s NEC is constitutionally bound to make the decision. But real change, and living up to those principles which has Labour polling at 43%, means going beyond that.

In some ways I feel the pathetic ‘chicken coup’ of 2016 did Labour a favour. Without it I doubt the party would have done so well in last year’s general election. A second leadership race in two years, under a system of one member one vote, meant not only that Jeremy Corbyn became a much more polished proposition for prime minister, but that the left more generally – in media, policy and activism – was offered the chance to experiment and test itself. Compare that to the Tories and the unelected ascent of Theresa May. We have a brittle, weak politician as prime minister because there is no culture of democracy within the Conservative party. 

If we are serious about Labour having a million members by the next general election then the role of general secretary has to be opened up. We can’t talk about recasting Britain more broadly if we can’t even do it within a single party. The politics of backroom deals partly explains why the Tories have the leader they do, and why Jeremy Corbyn – elected twice under one member one vote – has renewed the opposition like few expected.

When people ask how can we reinvigorate and grow the trade unions, the answer is democracy. It’s the same with Labour too. Because it’s not just about living up to the highest ideals of the left but also, in a world where politics is about being on a permanent campaign footing, having that decisive edge.

Debate, persuasion, open contest and a free exchange of ideas. This is why the left, after decades, is now winning. Let’s keep going.

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