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Labour’s new General Secretary: a battle for the soul of the Party

Behind the scenes a battle is underway for the soul of the Labour Party. In a week’s time its national executive will be in full swing. Top of its agenda will be deciding who is to be the next general secretary. The short-listing panel has offered the 33-member body a simple choice between head of fundraising and former acting general secretary, Chris Lennie and the GMB union’s national political officer, Iain McNicol.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of that decision, there is no reason to suppose currently that a decision will be defered. A political choice is on offer – more of the same or a step into the future. Bizarrely, rumours are reverberating round the Palace of Westminster that Labour’s new leader has already made his mind up and wants Chris Lennie.

I’d like to think that there was no substance in the idea of a foregone conclusion. But I had hoped he would see merit in making the Parliamentary Labour Party shadow cabinet elections annual and open. Instead he sought  authority to ban them altogether and increase the Leader’s powers of patronage by securing the right to select the team in opposition as when in government. So I am not holding my breath.

Labour List’s Mark Fergerson is inviting questions for the two candidates.

But at LabourList we’re more interested in demystifying these archaic party processes, and giving you an insight into what this race means for you, as party members and supporters.

That’s why over the next few days, we’ll be asking you to tell us what you’d ask the candidates. Between now and noon on Monday, we’ll be collecting your questions. We’ll then post a selection and invite the two candidates to respond.

That will definitely be worth watching.

For those of us who have been focused on those processes for some years, I wouldn’t have used the term ‘archaic’. Despite the brouhaha over a sub-clause of the Party’s Rule book following former leader Tony Blair’s election in 1994, it was the deliberate oversights and abuses of due process that lost Labour 5 million votes, some 250,000 members (net of annual recruitment and lapsing) and inevitably a general election. Anyone still working for the national party today has questions to answer about that state of affairs.

There is evidence to highlight those issues of lost voters and members available in the LabOUR Commission Interim Report (2007) at the newly launched Labour Democratic Network website. Shadow cabinet member without portfolio, Jon Trickett MP, spoke passionately about the issues from a policy, rather than a process perspective to a Winning Labour rally at Leeds Town Hall on Saturday. He was citing evidence of how Labour’s core voters had abandoned the party because they no longer believed it represented their interests. Whereas the professional vote among so-called A and B social classes was actually up in 2010.

The big divide is what to do about it and a pressing underlying issue, namely the state of the party’s finances. For the GS wannabes: is there a narrative linking a commitment to reaching out to putting the party’s finances on a sound footing? The Labour Party has recently concluded a consultation called Refounding Labour. For close observers it has been a text book example of how NOT to conduct a consultation. Efforts to ensure an open and transparent process failed. I would not be the slightest surprised to discover that Head Office staff wrote a report setting out recommendations before submissions could be read and presented it to last week’s NEC Organisation Committee. Nor would I be surprised if recommendations were made with claims of varying degrees of support from submissions received (but not either read or analysed systematically).

Who would want to give money to any organisation that routinely denied you a say, or ignored you when you made a contribution? ‘No say, no pay‘ is no more complicated a concept to grasp than ‘no taxation, without representation’. Consider the other consultation about policy started following our post-election defeat in 2010. It resulted in a draft policy document being circulated 36-hours before the National Policy Forum two weekends ago in Wrexham. If anyone has a copy of an internal note from Chris Lennie, as Head of Fundraising, registering the strongest possible objections to the way Partnership in Power has been managed since Conference 2010, please let me have a copy. It can’t have helped raise money over the past nine months.

In answer to the Mark Ferguson challenge, Emma Burnell who tweets as @scarletstandard has just said what the next GS needs is:

[a] broad innovative funding strategy, empowered activist base, transparent policy process.

So I hope our leader, who has found his voice to take on the media conglomerates, will spare a thought for his party, its financial well-being and, moreover, its soul when he casts his vote next Tuesday.

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