It’s eight months since Ed Miliband was elected promising change. Eight months that have seen more promise but precious little change. The party was promised a new voice, and maybe it will still be allowed a little one, but Liam Byrne’s policy review looks set to resurrect much of the old Blairite mantra before that voice is heard. Now it seems, in what would be Ed’s most serious failing to date, the party general secretaryship could be handed to an experienced Blairite hatchet man.
Chris Lennie has been the party’s deputy general secretary since 2001, helped into the job no doubt by his role as Unison’s northern regional secretary in shoe-horning David Milliband into South Shields and Parliament. Having risen through the Blairite political machine in Unison, y0u might have expected him to have climbed that final step to the top job sooner in his ten years at party HQ under New Labour. The truth is that his abilities and, in particular, his inter-personal skills, have not been much appreciated — in spite of two spells acting up to the top job, he’s served under four general secretaries without prospect of promotion until now.
Nor is he any great friend of the Labour staff: a long-time advocate of “modern management methods” such as the widespread use of temporary contracts, he has advocated handing the staff union franchise over from the GMB to Unison, who he predicted would be more malleable. He is referred to as “the corridor assassin” because of his penchant for balling out unfortunate staff members away from the ears of their union reps.
Chris Lennie has often been called upon to wield the hatchet, a task he performed with relish when expelling both George Galloway and the RMT from the party, for example. Is he someone who could now be expected to reunite the party? After ten years serving in the New Labour machine, can he be expected to mount the clean up the party needs, end the cheating and manipulation, restore the rulebook to its proper place rather than making up the rules as they go along? Will he oversee the dismantling of the party’s over-bearing centralisation, criticised across the political spectrum, and return power to the members who sustain it? We think not!
Unfortunately, the prospects of making Ed Miliband’s promise of change come about are not assisted by the failure of the unions to back a single candidate. Iain McNicol, currently national political officer of the GMB, was an early entry to the field and thought to have widespread backing from the trade unions and elsewhere — until recently he was the clear favourite in spite of Ed Miliband’s indecision on the matter.
Now we hear that Unite representatives on the National Executive may back Joe Irvin, former Head of Policy sat the TGWU and more recently Political Secretary to Gordon Brown at No 10, who favoured Ed Balls for leader. In spite of his union pedigree, Joe did not endear himself to trade unionists in his time at No 10, having wielded the stick for the PM on a number of issues they held dear. Ed Miliband will also not support him, and he is thought to have no chance of winning.
Without an agreed candidate, the unions could split several ways. Would the CWU back Irvin who is currently advising them in their campaign against Post Office privatisation? Will Unison back Chris Lennie who was, after all, one of theirs. USDAW can never be relied upon to line up with other unions.
Other candidates include Roy Kennedy, formerly Labour’s Director of Finance (amongst other posts) and now a life Peer, and Michael Stephenson, currently General Secretary of the Coop Party and former adviser at No 10 under Blair. Kennedy, whose wife Alicia is another current Deputy General Secretary at party HQ, is not though to be a serious candidate and Stephenson, though well thought of in the Coop Party, has not yet got off the starting block.
Chris Lennie is therefore, the current favourite. If Ed and the NEC allow him to win, “change” just ain’t gonna happen. Members should expect more of the same. Emma Burnell at LabourList described it very well:
Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strongarming delegates at conferences at which you were supposed to listen to the will of the party to ignoring what came out of those votes when it didn’t go as planned. But few in a position to do so ever speak up further than complaining at our branch meetings.
Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labour culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.