Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s new general secretary

Among the most serious choices any NEC member faces is who to vote for in the choice of a new general secretary of the Labour party. I and 30 other NEC members faced that decision yesterday. We were lucky in that a strong field of candidates had applied and we were presented with a shortlist of two, either of whom would have made an excellent general secretary.

Chris Lennie, the current deputy general secretary, and Iain McNicol, the GMB’s political officer, both shared strong experience working for the party itself and for a trade union (Chris used to be a Unison official), an absolute loyalty to Ed Miliband, and a commitment to thoroughgoing reform of the party machine.

It was a difficult choice but I am proud to have voted for Iain McNicol and delighted that the NEC as a whole picked Iain.

He has a tough act to follow, as current general secretary Ray Collins has succeeded against the odds in both stabilising the party’s finances and running a general election on a shoestring which saw Labour emerge with a very credible haul of seats, despite our unpopularity, because of clever targeting and dogged defensive organisation.

I think that picking Iain as general secretary will be looked back on in 2015 as a decisive moment in the roadmap to Ed Miliband becoming the Labour prime minister.

I have known Iain for twenty years since his election as campaigns and membership officer of Labour Students. I think there is universal delight among my generation of ex-Labour Students about Iain’s appointment. I can’t remember him having any enemies and he had and has across-the-board respect as one of, if not the, standout campaigner and organiser of his generation.

After leaving student politics Iain worked for the party on projects such as Operation Toehold, the 1995 scheme that saw him posted to deepest Dorset and Somerset to get Labour councillors elected in authorities that had been Labour-free zones. This generated extensive press coverage of the narrative that there were no ‘no-go areas’ for Labour and sowed the seeds of counterintuitive Labour parliamentary gains like south Dorset. Iain remains deeply committed to building a Labour presence in areas of the south and east of England that are tough territory for us.

Iain went on to work as an organiser in the 1997 general election where he won plaudits for masterminding a campaign that saw the Brentford and Isleworth constituency flooded with 800 Labour activists on polling day, and falling on a swing of 15 per cent to Labour versus the 10 per cent swing nationally.

Iain is one of the most honest, fundamentally decent people I have encountered in politics. He is deeply rooted in his family and his Scottish background (he even plays the bagpipes), but has a real feel for what makes voters in the south and marginal seats tick. He is loyal in every sense – to the party, to the wider movement, to Ed as leader and to his friends and comrades. He is also extremely tough, and he will need to be in a job where difficult decisions and firm leadership are needed. He respects the role of lay members and the internal democracy of the party and gets that the general secretary is there to implement the decisions of the NEC and leadership, not to carve their own political agenda.

I think the NEC voted for Iain because we believe he will really shake-up the party. We want change. We want a party machine in HQ and the regions that is reformed in line with the reforms of the lay party being considered in the Refounding Labour process. We were particularly impressed by his commitment to fundamental cultural change involving taking on and breaking up ‘silos, egos, factions and empires’ within the party machine, and building a broader, more inclusive senior management team.

Iain is going to bring big and overdue changes to the way the party operates. Examples of his plans include:

1.‘Access All Areas’ – long-term investment in organisation, campaigning and involvement across the south and east of England.
2.A ‘University for Labour’ – delivered largely online but with local sessions all over the country, to help create a new army of advocates for Labour.
3.Diversifying our funding base with a drive to get small donations from 250,000 individuals between now and the next election.
4.Giving staff, members and candidates across the UK much more of a role in important decisions, especially over resources. This will be informed by a Fit for Purpose Review of the current functions of the party to get the right structures that are suited to our needs and values.
Iain is going to ask a lot of us, whether we are staff or lay members. But the prize he is going to help us achieve is to only be a one-term opposition.

The party’s staff will find they have an inspirational new boss.

Party members will find they have a general secretary who absolutely respects their role and the internal democracy of the party.

Ed Miliband should be delighted to have someone of Iain’s commitment, talent and personal loyalty to him as general secretary. Iain is going to make a real difference to Ed’s chances of a general election victory.

Luke Akehurst

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee

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