There’s been a pretty strong backlash against rumours that the appointment of a new general secretary is a done deal. A range of prominent grassroots activists have lined up to attack a process which, if you believe the unattributed quotes in the original New Statesmen article, will see a weakened shortlist presented to the NEC to ensure that a particular candidate gets the job – claims refuted by NEC member Johanna Baxter.
I care not a jot if Ed Miliband has a preferred candidate. If he wants to see root and branch reform of the party, including changing the union link, he needs a strong general secretary that he trusts and that can deliver. There’s an element to democracy that you elect leaders to make many decisions on your behalf, if you don’t like those decisions you get rid of them.
What irks me about this is, as Mark Ferguson lamented, is the lack of transparency. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the end of a recruitment process where you discover afterwards it was probably stitched up all along for the internal candidate or a favoured son or daughter. But it’s pretty dispiriting. Of course you can never properly prove it, so there’s no complaint to be had, but after painstakingly filling out the application form, spending time anticipating likely interview questions and preparing well crafted answers, possibly doing a presentation, only to discover that the hours involved were utterly futile from the moment you first spied the job ad. Employment law does allow a certain amount of flexibility over ‘fair and open competition’ particularly around internal appointments and temporary appointments.
If, as Dan Hodges speculates, it’s a time limited appointment to sort our staffing and funding issues at party HQ the decision could probably just be made, and justified on that basis. Sparing other would be candidates the pain of getting their hopes up through a recruitment process.
And although I disagree with the stitch up, I find it hard to get that hot under the collar about it, because this general secretary process is the thin end of the wedge in being transparent and being seen to be transparent in both politics generally and the Labour Party.
When was the last time you saw a special adviser job advertised? This goes for whichever party you are a member of. My own brief spell as a SpAd (doing short term sick cover) came from a personal connection. In my own experience, doing short term sick cover, that required someone with experience to start immediately, I may well have been a justifiable appointment – and you may disagree. But permanent SpAd appointments aren’t routinely made via a transparent recruitment process that’s advertised on Work for an MP or via the Party’s own website – it almost invariably means you need to be in some kind of inner circle to have a chance in the first place. Hardly helping to broaden the base of representation at all levels of the party and giving everyone a fair crack at the opportunities there are.
During the selection process for the Leicester South by-election, many people were convinced that a weakened shortlist was presented to favour Jonathan Ashworth. I have no idea whether this is the case and I don’t know Jonathan so have no beef with him. But I do know a very strong candidate with good Leicester connections who didn’t make the short list and I do know that a great number of people didn’t have any trouble believing that this was the case – which should be cause enough to make us think. And it actually does Jonathan Ashworth MP a disservice because by all accounts he’ll be a bloody good MP and may well have won the selection in any case. Wouldn’t it have been better for the NEC to simply impose him as a candidate than create a situation where shady rumours abound? But it isn’t the first time, and I doubt it will be the last, that someone cries foul in a parliamentary selection. Again this isn’t unique to the Labour Party.
Closer to home, many council selections are fraught with allegations and counter allegations – see ‘Tower Hamlets: Mayor’. I’m happy to say that Camden’s process, as we prepared for the 2010 elections, passed off cleanly and fairly – and transparently, but often that isn’t the case with local council selections.
I hope you’ll see I’ve been at pains to point out that none of these complaints is unique to the Labour Party. Indeed the Liberal Democrats, as far as I understand, don’t bother with elections at all they just impose candidates.
But the other parties can do what they do. The Labour Party is up to us. Can we really be a social democratic party, when everyone who reads these allegations has got to a point where the default position is to believe in the stitch up – regardless of the unattributed evidence – rather than be pretty sure that the process was probably fair, and if it wasn’t it was probably down to the actions of a rogue individual rather than a systemic failing?
We have democratic selection procedures. We should use them. We have published recruitment procedures. We should use them. And we also have clear rules when democracy doesn’t apply in the party, if the circumstances necessitate we should just use them, and defend them, rather than putting good people through the charade of fairness and democracy, if the outcome is already pre-determined. Some people will always claim ‘stitch up’ but the rest of us will be better able to defend the party and its procedures if it uses them properly, fairly and most importantly transparently.
Despite this blogs pessimistic tone, I’m pretty optimistic that the Refounding Labour process will start to deal with some of these issues and hopefully members will start to see a party where many more people can get a chance – at whatever they want to achieve for the party – based on their abilities, not their friends.