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Iain McNicol’s in-tray: Pandora’s Box

I welcome Iain McNicol’s election as the Labour Party’s next General Secretary. I would not describe him as a buddy, or close personal friend. Iain is a comrade. And I would like to share two experiences that highlight why.

I first met him in my capacity as chair of Save the Labour Party in 20045 while seeking members for the LabOUR Commission and starting to raise money to pay for its research programme. The GMB’s Mary Turner joined the Commission, and the GMB made a substantial financial contribution to its work. Its Interim Report is here.

Latterly, Iain was instrumental in securing GMB support for the City of London Labour Party branch’s Common Council election campaign in 2009. The GMB is a recognised by the Corporation of London as the union representing ‘blue collar’ workers. Labour in the City was campaigning for the London Living Wage to paid to casual staff employed by the Barbican Centre and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as was the GMB. No one at Victoria Street ordered the branch to fight the campaign. No one at Victoria Street even included the Common Council elections in their work programme. This was guerilla politics organised by local members, working with a local GMB branch. Iain as the GMB’s national political officer got it. While Labour was languishing in the polls, Labour in the City was attracting positive media interest far beyond the actual results. We didn’t win a seat on Common Council. But hundreds of casual City of London workers now enjoy better pay.

As I write the NEC is wrestling with a travesty of a report on Refounding Labour,about which I blogged yesterday. That is just one manifestion of a deeply corrupt political culture at the heart of the Labour Party with which Iain is going to have to wrestle. The recommendations were written before the deadline and bear little relation to the actual submissions, I’m told.

Lurking in Pandora’s Box are the Party’s finances, relations with paid staff, and between paying members both individuals and affiliates. Iain was described wrongly in my opinion by Sunny Hundal on Twitter as the ‘union candidate’ . That is grossly unfair to Iain. He may currently work for a trade union. But he would be better described as a grassroots candidate. Relations between these two sections of the Labour Party that control 50% each of the votes at conference are key to rebuilding the Labour Party.

The TUs are well organised. Members through their Constituency Labour Parties are not. There are too many competing interests: From Progress, Labour First on the right through Labour Values, Save the Labour Party, Winning Labour, the Fabians, Left Loot Forward, to the the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Labour Representation Committee, and Socialist Action on the left (and possibly many more). To help the rebuilding, Save the Labour Party has rebranded itself and formulated a set of Aims that ought to appeal to all political sections – they were agreed in June and have been published as the Manchester Declaration 2011. The unsubtle sub-text is an end to command and control politics in the Labour Party under the banner of the Labour Democratic Network. Actual policy is for all the above to debate.

To succeed Iain will need to demonstrate his capacity with the Leader, Ed Miliband to deal with the Pandora’s Box issues in time for Conference 2011 in Liverpool in less than 10 weeks’ time. Those Refounding Labour submissions have got to rendered into an electronic format capable of being analysed, and published. Ditto Partnership into Power submissions that helped shape ‘A better future for Britain’. Party morale, particularly among activists, with odds shortening on a snap General Election needs a big boost. Not just because it’s important to have a say. But a small donation culture needs creating, fostering and nurturing while the Party nationally is still struggling to repay debts piled up by former leader Tony Blair and his fund-raiser supremo, Lord Levy in 2005.

Ed Miliband’s handling of the issues arising from the extraordinary story about the News of the World hacking of a murdered 13-year old’s mobile phone has provided breathing space. Ed’s personal standing is rising. But there is still deep public mistrust of politicians. Labour has to reach out. But not by further neglect and abuse of its activist base both in Labour Party branches and constituencies, and in the Trade Unions. Iain will hopefully be able to guide the Leader away from defining himself (like Blair) in opposition to his Party, towards leading the party in the spirit in which he was elected nearly a year ago.

There is a very significant concession by the TU section in their Refounding Labour submission concerning the composition of the NEC, which is heavily weighted towards its section which has 12 seats, compared to only 6 for CLPs. There are lots of suitably warm words in submissions about reaching out, engaging with and being representative of our communities to improve our electoral standing. This is not to decry any of that. But the Labour Party does not need to change its rules to develop better practices. It does, however, need rule changes to rebalance power between members, TUs and its elected public representatives (MPs and Councillors) both on the NEC and its ill-fated National Policy Forum (NPF).

LDN is proposing that that increase in CLP representation on the NEC is a must for a Rule Change at this year’s Conference. There will then be a tussle about how? Election by regions like the NPF, or nationally as at present. But that would be debate worth having before a vote at Conference in September to get members talking to each other, sharing ideas and experiences about what works. to encourage that the current restrictions on data sharing among members has got to go. (If you don’t want to be involved, you can opt out.) But the default position has got to be members may talk to members.

it would be churlish not to say Good luck, Iain. But you are going to need much more than that. They are called: Comrades

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