Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Labour's new General Secretary should be a first class political administrator not a politician

The piece below also appears on the Progress webiste


When Len Williams (Labour’s general secretary during the early years of the first two Wilson governments) retired in 1968, he was expected to be replaced by someone younger, someone who would be able to help reinvigorate and transform the party and its structures and lead it to a third successive victory. In the end, the party chose a man called Harry Nicholas, a long-serving left-wing official of the T&G union, a man not known for his progressive ideas, a man who was unlikely to set about initiating a programme for renewal and reform. Only two years after Nicholas was appointed Labour ended up losing the 1970 general election.

If Labour is to win the next election, indeed any future election, it must ensure that the infrastructure that provides support to the party at a local, regional and national level is as professional, as competent and as efficient as it is possible to be. The post of general secretary (or perhaps we should change the title to reflect the core role of the job – perhaps it could become the party operations director, or national director, after all each region has its own ‘regional director’) should not be filled by a professional politician but by a first-class political administrator.

Why? Because she or he will head a staff of some 200 in the two head offices (London and Tyneside), be responsible for employing staff; campaign and media strategies; running the party's organisational, constitutional and policy committees; organising the party conference; liaising with the Socialist International and Party of European Socialists; ensuring legal and constitutional propriety and preparing high quality campaign literature. I also believe that the background, age and profile of likely candidates will, and should, be fairly self-selecting – indeed only individuals with a proven track record of leading complex, campaign-focused national organisations need apply.

Whoever is next appointed to the role (and I think it important that she/he is subject to a rigorous interview and selection process) will need to set about the urgent task of renewing our structures in order to ensure that, as a party, we are properly equipped to make more of our progressive agenda in government irreversible. We must insure that repeal by a future rightwing Tory is made impossible. Most of us joined the Labour party to help change the world, not to change the minutes of the previous meeting. A new general secretary needs to be focused on strategies to gain back the 200,000 members we have lost since 1997 and on building a campaign machine that will help win back the four million voters who have abandoned Labour during the same period. Local members in my CLP, like the vast majority across the country I would guess, want to be part of what the government does, they want to be heard and they want to be listened to and we need a new general secretary who will help ensure that this happens.

A new person should play a key role in helping to shape the agenda that will see the creation of a renewed and refreshed party, a party that will reflect the aspirations of ordinary people and a party that is realistic about the challenges that lie ahead.

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