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Labour General Secretary: Will Ed leave machine politics in the past?

Yesterday, a Labour selection panel chose a shortlist of two for a new general secretary. The panel was carefully chosen to comprise largely those who would, in the bad old New Labour days, have been described as Leadership loyalists. The full executive, which has chosen the party’s chief executive since the party’s early days, may not like being given only two candidates from which to choose, but it certainly clarifies the choice. Chris Lennie, the machine insider, the establishment candidate, backed by the Leader’s advisers, versus Iain McNicol, GMB Political Officer and himself a former party organiser, the candidate most likely to restore to the party machine the civil service principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

An obvious stitch-up of the sort that Dan Hodges and we ourselves had predicted, and was widely condemned, has been averted, since both front-runners are included. And, ironically, it is a shortlist which suits those two candidates too. No room for compromise here. It will be presented as a choice between loyalty and change. If it wasn’t for the fact that Iain McNicol is, in the eyes of some of the Leader’s advisers, “smeared” by being a candidate that comes from the unions, they might present it to Ed as a choice between “Head” and “Heart”.

That doesn’t do the contest justice. They would both be “loyal” to Ed. They are not necessarily very different in their political outlook. The key difference is that Chris Lennie is absolutely compromised by having been part of the corrupt and rotten party machine under New Labour, which was designed:

to support Blair in power, to command and control, to ensure that anyone selected for any public office was on-message, that any policy proposal presented for discussion at any but the lowest level was in line with the Leader’s thinking, that no unauthorised campaigning actvity took place. Party members were surplus to requirements except for their money and occasional appearances as extras on a film or photo set. A winning campaign could be managed from the centre, through the media, or so they thought.

The party machine we have is not the one we need, one in which party members are trusted and empowered, encouraged to contribute to policy discussion, to whom ownership of the party’s programme is restored, who are encouraged and inspired to build up local campaigning strength, to develop direct, person-to-person communications with the British public. The party machine we have is the one which is, even now, obstructing Peter Hain in his desire, on Ed’s behalf, to achieve those things. The party machine we have is the one put in place when Margaret McDonagh was General Secretary, when:

staff who could not be relied upon to do whatever was “necessary” were weeded out, and new staff carefully vetted. Many of those staff are still there, particularly in senior positions at head office and amongst the regional staff. They are the ones who rig and manipulate parliamentary and council shortlists, panels and selections, tell conference delegates to break their mandates, misinterpret or ignore party rules, and offer meetings and photo opportunities with Ministers in exchange for voting “the right way” in elections and other key votes.

The new General Secretary must be charged with re-shaping the party staff, removing those committed to the old ways. It is a task which Ed knows needs to be done, which he needs done because their loyalty is not to him. It will be a tough challenge. It will require the full backing of the national executive and of Ed himself. Ray Collins has not done it. Chris Lennie would not do it. Iain McNicol is the one candidate left in the race who could.

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