Open up the Labour General Secretary contest

Submitted by SJW on 9 March, 2018 - 6:03 Author: Simon Nelson
Jennie Formby

The contest which has opened up over who will replace Iain McNicol as General Secretary of the Labour Party should be an opportunity to talk about what a left-led Labour Party should be like in its culture and structures. Whether it can be anything other than an acrimonious factional battle, and one that is impossible for ordinary Labour members to decode, remains to be seen.

First of all it should be an open contest. That was Momentum Chair Jon Lansman's stated reason for standing, and he is right against the leadership of the Labour Party who want Unite official Jennie Formby to get the job and are pressing Lansman to stand down. There is now a third candidate, Paul Hilder, a digital entrepreneur, a director of Crowdpac and one of the founders of OpenDemocracy, he himself is a Momentum member. But it is more than a matter of having a choice of contender.

It looks increasingly likely that Formby will be anointed as the successor to McNichol. She has the support of the majority of the National Executive Committee's “‘left caucus”. 17 MPs as well as the Labour Representation Committee and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) have also stated their support.

But the appointment to this highly important and influential position should be made by a proper democratic process. The rules state that in the event of a vacancy for General Secretary the NEC can choose the method of selecting the candidate subject to the approval of Party Conference. In practice this will mean a rubber stamping of their decision. This position should be elected at Conference, with regional hustings organised in the run up.

The desire to rush the appointment reflects, as, the New Socialist website puts it, a “siege mentality” among the established sections of the Labour left. Since 2015, Corbyn has survived a leadership challenge, a General Election, and fought to win left control of the NEC, chair the Disputes Committee. The left has just started to gain control in local branches and local Labour Parties. The “siege mentality”, which has in some quarters, created a destructive factional mood, and distaste for debate on the left has to end. Now is the time for the left to change gear and begin to talk about key differences in strategy and politics. This contest could help us begin to to this. That is why we do not share the view that the entire Labour left must unite around a particular candidate.

But most importantly we should know what is at stake politically in this election. We believe, although cannot be sure, it tied up with debates surrounding Labour's democracy review.

Why is Lansman standing when he seems unlikely to win? The obvious answer is that he doesn't expect to win and he is flying a kite for proposals he wants to win and positions he wants Momentum to capture later. His stance of opening up the contest may be consistent with his approach to inserting One Member One Vote (OMOV) at every level in the party, and right now at every level of the democracy review.

We have criticised that approach as being only superficially democratic.

Although arguments against the election of the leader and deputy leader or the CLP National Exectutive places by anything other than OMOV are unlikely to sway anyone currently, the extension of OMOV into other Party elections, or to use it as a counterweight to the union's block vote at Conference would be a huge step backwards for the movement.

Unlike real-world general meetings and delegate conferences, online voting allows for no real deliberation, challenges, amendments, persuasion or democratic control; it puts power in the hands of the bureaucracy that frames and picks the questions which are up for voting. It heavily biases in favour of candidates who have access to the media. Such systems been introduced where left-wing parties are being tamed or at their weakest, they are not the method of building a mass member-led and radical Labour Party.

When the right-wing introduced OMOV for Labour leadership contests, they thought it would undermine the left. The history of other left parties and of Labour itself suggests that they were in general right; only in the election of Corbyn (because he accidentally got onto the ballot paper) did it turn out differently. We should not read this fluke as a lesson for the future of organising. OMOV could easily backfire in the future.

The idea that you require no real organisation, just a membership mobilised for election campaigns and clicktivism with an all-commanding centre directing your offline and online movements has grown in stature since the June 2017 election. That seems to be Lansman’s vision as well. But is Corbyn's and even McDonnell's vision any better? Perhaps the leadership are aiming for an amalgam of Momentum's social movement activism and traditional union influence. That's not good enough as an overall vision of what the Labour Party should be. We can’t allow the debate to become polarised between “pale male and stale” advocates of the old labour-movement status quo versus advocates of youthful clicktivism.

We need a Labour Party that is bold, and is the genuine expression of a lively and combative workers movement. Being member-led means engaging the mass membership into activity, through from wards that are hubs for political education and community organising, through to a locally-based Young Labour with dynamic campaigns. Attempts to water down membership engagement to a series of surveys or weak online plebiscites is not a substitution for organisation grounded in workplaces, colleges and communities. This way Labour can become an anti-capitalist force in politics.

It is possible that Jennie Formby, the Unite office backed by both Corbyn and McDonnell and at least a big chunk of the left and union delegates on Labour's National Executive (where the final appointment will be voted on) want to stop Lansman's approach to the trade union link. There is something to be said for that. As the bedrock organisations of working-class organisation, that can, potentially, bring class struggles into the politics, we do not want the Labour-trade union link to be weakened.

Lansman is perfectly entitled to criticise the way the link is used as a way for union bureaucracies to wield political influence; we would probably agree.

But to seek either to water down the amount of influence the trade union movement has, or to make individual trade unionists opt-in as registered supporters of Labour, would be a move towards atomisation of trade union involvement in Labour, not democratising the link.

Lansman knows this, he was one of the leading figures in the Defend the Link campaign against the Collins Review in 2013-4, and during the last Labour Party democracy review. Then he supported a strengthening of the union link.

On the other hand, as much as we criticise Momentum's current approach of introducing OMOV everywhere, Formby is an establishment figure in Unite, which has no interest in democratising the Labour-Union link.

These underlying debates need to be clearly out in the open. It will be argued that politics is not really an issue here as the General Secretary is an administrative post that acts like a Chief of Staff, ensuring that staff undertake the work of the NEC. Indeed, the General Secretary should serve the NEC and not the leader as they did under Blair, Brown and Miliband, but that does not mean we can view the post as an apolitical role.

Under Iain McNichol we saw a concerted attempt to expand the role of the Compliance Unit and its “investigations” led to thousands of people being auto-excluded and expelled using interpretations of the rules that were completely unreasonable. Many socialists, including Workers’ Liberty supporters continue to find themselves bureaucratically prevented from joining or reapplying to join the Labour Party, with no right of appeal. The next General Secretary should disavow that approach.

At the time of writing none of the other big unions have pledged their support for Formby, perhaps showing a reluctance to endorse what Lansman may rightly believe is an attempted power grab by Unite. It could be that Lansman is allied with GMB and Unison. In which case, the candidates' substantive political difference amounts to a difference in “style” between the big unions on the Labour link. But, to repeat, none of this is very clear and it should be!

Lansman’s suitability for the post of General Secretary also has to be judged on the basis of his style of operating and in how he closed down democracy in Momentum which we have written about elsewhere. That has alienated many people.

To some on the left, like the Labour Representation Committee, believe Formby is the better candidate. They refer to the fact his resignation from the NEC would give his vacant seat to the highest placed right-wing candidate, Eddie Izzard. But another reason, made explicit by some LRC supporters, Jewish Voice for Labour and Labour Against the Witch-hunt, is that Formby she has been less critical than Lansman on the issue of left antisemitism in Labour. Since his decision to stand was made public, Lansman has been subjected to an appalling barrage of antisemitic attacks on social media (which have been condemned by Formby).

One of the issues which could destablise a vote for Formby is the court challenge to Len McCluskey's narrow victory for Unite leadership held last April. If Unite, and McCluskey are found guilty of running rigged elections, Formby will not appear in the public eye as a champion of labour movement democracy… On the other hand if McCluskey is deposed, or unable to restand for his position, then the wing of the Unite bureaucracy which backs him can be assured that they got their candidate in a position of influence in Labour.

The contest is also emboldening moderate MPs to intervene into a contest, to break up the left, for example by demanding a discussion in Parliament. They have called for a hustings where they can try and extract guarantees from the candidates, both of whom they believe stand in opposition to much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. That's another reason for ending the policy on the left of “if you're not with us you're against us” stance which made sense as Corbyn rose to power, but is now impeding debate and helping to generate a nasty witch-hunt against the hard left.

Lansman (and anyone else) should stand if they want to, but let's have the discussion and begin to talk about the kind of Labour Party organisation we actually want.