Labour’s Next General Secretary: Building a Transformative Party

The Labour left shed few tears for Iain McNicol last month when, after nearly seven years in the job, he finally announced his intention to take his leave as general secretary of the Labour Party.

The Labour left shed few tears for Iain McNicol last month when, after nearly seven years in the job, he finally announced his intention to take his leave as general secretary of the Labour Party. A bete noire of the left at least since the leadership contest of summer 2016, McNicol’s departure - and his likely replacement by a pro-Corbyn successor - marks another important advance for the party leadership in its efforts to remould the Labour Party apparatus in its own image.

However, the struggle to succeed McNicol has brought to the fore some strains among the Labour left, with briefings and counter-briefings appearing in the press and blogosphere. Jon Lansman’s announcement that he had applied for the role - putting him up against Unite’s Jennie Formby, a long-serving National Executive Committee (NEC) member previously considered a likely shoo-in and still the probable frontrunner - was greeted with opprobrium in some quarters and there are unsettling signs that the contest is at risk of becoming an ugly one. Lansman has since been joined by a third applicant, Paul Hilder (who also applied for the role in 2011), with more expected to apply. Applications close on March 13th, with a new general secretary due to be appointed by March 20th.

An important point to note here is that, as Owen Jones has already rightly pointed out, the presence of three left candidates is an indication of the Labour left’s strength - not its weakness. All three are solid Corbyn supporters and have much to recommend them; Formby as a highly effective political director of Unite (the union’s intervention having been central to defending Corbyn’s leadership in 2016), Lansman as a veteran Labour left organiser and protege of Tony Benn, and Hilder as an innovative digital strategist. Fears of a split left vote on the NEC appear misguided; according to Hilder, the standard practice for electing a general secretary involves an exhaustive run-off ballot between shortlisted applicants.1 This should guarantee at least one left candidate a place in the final round, with a clear left majority already on the NEC. There is, in any case, nothing democratic about a coronation.

Nevertheless, Lansman’s commitment to party democracy and even his socialism have been called into question. Some of the accusations levelled at him are difficult to credit. Lansman has been instrumental in struggles to extend and defend Labour Party democracy for four decades, from the battles for mandatory reselection and the electoral college in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns of 2015 and 2016. Few have done more, over a longer period, to empower Labour Party members. Whatever criticisms one may have of Momentum’s internal democracy (which is, to be generous, a work in progress), the Labour left would not be where it is today were it not for Lansman; the abuse to which he has been subjected is scandalous.

The abuse Lansman has received has included some disgraceful anti-Semitic bile; some of it a dogwhistle, some of it more of a foghorn. Formby has, to her credit, spoken out firmly against it. Though it shouldn’t be necessary to say, sadly it is: there can be no place on the left for anti-Semitism and socialists must be vigilant on this front. It is the duty of everyone genuinely committed to a socialist, democratic and internationalist political project to take responsibility and confront anti-Semitism wherever it arises in our movement.

The vehemence of the reaction against Lansman appears to indicate the continuing presence of a siege mentality among sections of the Labour left. Given the embattled position of the Corbyn leadership for most of the last two-and-a-half years, it is to an extent understandable that something of a hangover remains. But the Labour left’s position is no longer so weak that we have to clamp down on all sources of disagreement among ourselves for fear that the Labour right might capitalise. Formby, Lansman and Hilder will all have their own respective visions for what the Labour Party should become, and all have every right to put them forward as indeed do others. The Labour left no longer has any good reason to fear internal debates and differences of opinion, so long as they are not allowed to degenerate into mutual blood-letting. Furthermore, the persistence of this siege mentality has the potential to severely limit and impede the development of Corbynism. It must be challenged.

It should also be clear from experience that Labour’s general secretary is never just a mere member of staff. The latter McNicol years were not an aberration. There is a good argument that given the political as well as administrative clout that comes with it, the role of general secretary should be subject to the approval of the full party membership rather than just the NEC - both Lansman and Hilder have publicly expressed support for such a change. But we should at the very least take this opportunity to instigate a discussion on what a Labour general secretary’s political role should be, how they should be chosen, how they might ensure that the interests of members are adequately represented, and what they can do to make the party bigger, broader and better equipped for the challenges it faces.

The question of party reform is very much an urgent one. It is neither a distraction nor self-indulgence, but a necessity to radically democratise and open the Labour Party up if the next Labour government is to bring about a radical political, cultural and economic renewal. In order to make this renewal a reality, the party must strengthen its grounding in working-class and marginalised communities. It needs not just to be able to draw on their practical solidarity and solid support against the severe turbulence it can expect to encounter in government, but also on their ideas and talents. Any future socialist hegemony in Britain needs to be built from the bottom up - and the ideological battle, after four decades in which socialist perspectives and ideas have been systematically marginalised in Britain, has barely begun.

Given the complexity and sheer scale of the task facing the Labour leadership as it prepares to attempt to govern from the left, the old methods of what Eric Shaw has called ‘social-democratic centralism’2 will not suffice. But it isn’t hard to see how it may become more tempting to revert (at least partially) to those old norms the closer the prospect of another Labour government becomes, rendering the party leadership more risk-averse than it might otherwise be. Hilary Wainwright has noted that this tendency has afflicted much of the European left in recent years, to its detriment. It is important to bear her warning in mind:

What an electorally successful left party, aiming for a radical transformation of the capitalist state and of the economy, involves in practice is uncertain; but the negative lessons of Greece warn harshly against any separation from the radical social movements from which their support came, and on whose transformative power Corbyn and his team depend, to achieve the changes they have promised and for which they were elected.3

As we have again seen recently with Corbyn’s (apparently popular) decision to confront the press and its smear stories, this Labour leadership is at its best when it’s at its boldest. It should therefore be prepared to allow a real conversation about party reform to flourish over the coming weeks and beyond, giving the various applicants for general secretary the space to flesh out their respective visions for the party - and hopefully sparking a wider discussion among the Labour membership about how a truly democratic and socialist Labour Party should organise and campaign in order to foster what Wainwright calls ‘power-as-transformative capacity’,4 bolstering the collective self-confidence and winning the trust of the people the labour movement aims to serve.

What is vital, however, is that once this matter has been settled and a new Labour general secretary is in post, Momentum and Unite are once again able to present a united front. Whatever differences persist afterwards, these must be kept in perspective. We have seen already just how animated sections of the press get when they think they’ve sniffed out tensions among the Labour left, hackneyed ‘People’s Front of Judea’ gags and all. To some extent these tensions are inherent; trade union and party activists are often subject to different pressures and sometimes have different priorities. The alliance is, to adapt Lewis Minkin’s term,5 necessarily a contentious one. But divisions between sections of the trade union left and the Labour Party left, and the consequent splits and realignments among them, ultimately proved devastating for both in the 1980s. It is incumbent upon all concerned to ensure that this history isn’t allowed to repeat itself - because this time, it would be both a tragedy and a farce.

  1. The Labour Party Rule Book (2018, p18) makes no specific provisions for the exact method of electing a general secretary. It appears therefore that the NEC (which, as noted above, has a left majority) is free to hold an exhaustive ballot, which would both prevent any splitting of the vote and encourage the broadest possible debate. 

  2. Eric Shaw, Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party: The Politics of Managerial Control in the Labour Party 1951-87, Manchester University Press 1988, p294-5 

  3. Hilary Wainwright, A New Politics From the Left, Polity Press 2018, p128 

  4. Wainwright 2018, p20 

  5. Lewis Minkin, The Contentious Alliance: Trade Unions and the Labour Party, Manchester University Press 1991