Tuesday 28 June 2011

How not to appoint a Labour General Secretary

It is difficult to imagine a potentially more difficult thankless job than that of Labour Party General Secretary. Except perhaps Leader of the Opposition, England football manager, or chief election strategist for the Liberal Democrats in 2015.

Dan Hodges had a good scoop for the New Statesman about the Labour General Secretary stakes yesterday.

Hodges' call is that Chris Lennie has the support of the leader’s office and so is set to get the job is a credible one, consistent with the word around Westminster over the last week.

But is it really a done deal – or might reaction to this premature pre-announcement yet affect the outcome? Mark Ferguson on LabourList was first to argue that it should – by pointing out the apparently stark clash between Monday’s news about the top party job and the major speech which Ed Miliband gave on changing the party’s culture last weekend.

There are two reasons that this.

Firstly, it is surely fair to describe Chris Lennie as the candidate of continuity, rather than change.

There are always both pros and cons in that. The current assistant general secretary is obviously well informed about the current personnel, structures, processes and culture of the party. He has particularly had lead responsibility for the party’s fundraising effort, where both the leader and new general secretary will be aware of the need to significantly rebuild Labour’s ability to raise resources, given that non-union funding has almost entirely dried up.

This continuity choice might well represent an attempt for the leader’s office to accommodate and so improve fractious relations with current senior party staff.

But observers will legitimately ask whether the trade-off is to blunt the scale of cultural and organisational change which the Refounding Labour – so it would be up to the leader - and his new General Secretary - to signpost very clearly that the ‘change’ vision will be carried through.

It is hardly any secret in Westminster that relations between Ed Miliband and Victoria Street have been difficult over the last year. The shared perception across most of the five rival leadership campaigns was that party HQ was doing whatever they felt they legitimately could do to assist the frontrunner. The new “Ed” biography by Mehdi Hasan and James MacIntyre reports some of the detail of how party staff struggled to deal with the immediate impact of a surprise result.

The New Labour theory of party management that party HQ is a 100% loyal extension of the leader's office was set out recently by ex-General Secretary Peter Watt.

"since the clause four debate, party staff have always been 100 per cent loyal to the leader. They have always acted in concert with the leader, the leader's office or senior team. When they have acted and whatever they have done has been as an extension of the leader's office. And quite right too!"

Whether this is a good idea or not - and there should be some limits – I doubt anybody, whatever their own personal politics, could seriously describe that as 100% the actualite over the last year.

Will Straw and Nick Anstead argued cogently in a Fabian pamphlet ‘The Change We Need’ back in 2009 that Labour needed a “cultural glasnost” in its internal culture. This chimes with what the leader himself has argued. Would the Lennie appointment perhaps reflect the counter-intuitive hypothesis in the leader’s office that Labour’s Gorbachev will also be found from within the current party HQ regime?


Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the question of how the merits of the different possible candidates will be assessed. Hodges’ report quotes a "senior party official" suggesting that the most impressive alternative candidates will be excluded from the shortlist, precisely for that reason!

"Ed's team have moved heavily behind Chris," said the source. "The only serious opposition was McNicol, which is why he won't be included on the shortlist."

Unfortunately, that modus operandi would not be surprising – but it is indicative of a problem culture in the Labour Party specifically, and across the parties too. I hope the leader and NEC will make it very clear this will not be the principle on which shortlisting will take place. It was good to hear NEC member Johanna Baxter briefly set out her belief that the NEC must run a fair process, based on merit, in which she also questioned whether it would be "in any candidate's favour to run their campaign in the press".

I should be very clear that I don’t have enough information about the full field of potential candidates, and especially the vision which each of them would have of both the party’s future and the General Secretary’s role within it, to say who I think would be the best choice for the job. Scrutiny of the personal qualities and vision of potential candidates is legitimately the job of the NEC, and the selection panel it appoints, as Baxter argues.

So I am certainly not in a position to gauge whether Lennie, Iain McNicol, Joe Irvine or AN Other would be the best man or woman for Labour now. It could well be Lennie who would come through a rigorous and fair process strongest, on the basis of his experience and ideas. My point is simply that I don’t think that anybody else, however elevated their position in the party, could credibly claim to already be in a position to make a final, informed judgement either.

That is why neither the leader’s office nor the NEC should fix the outcome in advance, making the recruitment process simply a matter of ratifying their prior decision.

The job of those charged with making the appointment is to select the best possible candidate – and the best way to do this is to ensure that the best possible candidates are rigorously tested, including by competing with the strongest possible alternatives for the role.

In a high-profile, very political job like Labour General Secretary, it can be rather difficult to secure a strong shortlist of competing candidates. For example, Sam Allardyce could well be wary of going for an interview at the Football Association if he did not think he had some fair chance of being selected.

So it may be that Hodges' senior party sources aim to persuade rival candidates to withdraw ahead of the contest. But this idea expressed in the piece of excluding strong contenders in case they might prove more impressive at interview in their vision of the role should be flagged clearly offside – and explicitly rejected by the leader and NEC.

There is some risk of personal and political fallout from having a rigorous open contest and a level playing field. The leader knows perhaps better than anybody that there can be more than one impressive candidate for a major political job. For a role of this importance, it is worth taking every opportunity to test front-runners seriously against the best possible rival contenders.

Just because our politics is rarely done on those basic principles doesn’t mean it is right to carry on with current practice.

What is striking is that ministerial offices, political parties and newspapers – being those most likely to preach vociferously about the merits of transparency, fair competition and level playing fields – are consistently the least likely organisations to even attempt to practice it.

One result is that– even as political recruitment in Parliament has broadened, at least in terms of gender and ethnicity if not class - the cohorts of special advisers and party staffers seems to have become narrower in all parties. There is a shared ‘groupthink’ culture, across the major parties, that informal recruitment from within existing networks is the only way that works in the real world, prioritising personal loyalty and prior connections within the current circle. And those making these decisions lack the time, capacity and expertise to work out how to do it more rigorously.

But I doubt it is impossible, even for the major political parties, to attempt a fair competitive process for important jobs. The open advertisement and process for the recruitment of a Fabian General Secretary shows that political organisations can choose to emulate what is routine best practice in NGOs and commercial organisations, if they believe that their values demand that approach.

And Ed Miliband is clearly promising a different party culture – one of openness and transparency.

There were too many decisions once in smoke-filled rooms in the past, and by a few people on a sofa in Westminster in the New Labour era, he rightly said on Saturday.

Parties show they have changed their culture by living their values. So it could hardly be too much to ask that how the leader and the NEC appoints his General Secretary – whoever turns out to be best for the job - should surely meet the tests the leader has set.

The choice is between a standard political fix and a rigorous contest – in order to decide who gets to play the lead role in ‘Refounding Labour’.

The leader is right to want to change the culture of the party.

It is never too early to start.

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