Chris Lennie hired me to work for the Labour party, 12 long years ago. Today is his last day working for the Labour party, and I wanted to say thank you.
Back then, Chris was the Director of Labour North, which meant he had responsibility for the Labour party in the North-East of England (and a part of Cumbria). While Labour North was the smallest English region of the Labour party, it was also solidly, consistently Labour. Of the 34 parliamentary seats we were responsible for, 31 were Labour held, and a large number of our MPs were political heavyweights. There was also the small matter of the Prime Minister being the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield.
On top of that, Labour ran nearly every council in the region. Easy life, right? Wrong. With great power comes great infighting. We had Labour groups at war with each other, or with their MPs, people positioning themselves for selection, or maneuvering others, or seeking to impress.
On top of that, Chris had me as the regional press officer. I like to think I was a pretty good press officer, but even those who love me best would not claim that a fanatical approach to detail and planning is the hallmark of my career. This must have been agony for Chris, but he seemed to think that there was something worthwhile in my work despite that. Though he did start suggesting that he come to pick me up from home to go to the office if we absolutely had to start the working day on time because the PM was visiting, or some such trifle.
What’s more, dealing with people who had known almost every senior figure in the Labour party since they were fresh faced tyro’s and who have been in power for a decade or more locally has it’s own challenges. If a council leader is about to make a terrible, catastrophic error, it’s relatively hard to tell them not to. Or at least, it was hard to tell them in a way that meant they listened.
Chris handled all of this with consummate ease, and as a result ended up being appointed Assistant General Secretary after the 2001 Election. For the next decade, Chris was variously Assistant, Deputy and Acting General Secretary of the Labour party under five different General Secretaries (David Triesman, Matt Carter, Peter Watt, Ray Collins and Iain McNicol).
I used to feel that Chris got something of a hard deal out of his long time as Labour’s No 2 manager. Part of it was that he tended to get a lot of the unglamorous, difficult, managerial jobs in the Labour party. While others were in charge of policy, or campaigns, or media, Chris always seemed to be the manager responsible for personnel – which in the Labour party mostly means telling people they can’t have the staff they need and then getting rid of large numbers of staff after a General Election, which never tends to make you popular, especially if you can’t do a job without radiating enthusiasm, as Chris always did.
Chris also often seemed to be responsible for things like disciplinary inquiries and party suspensions, which is also an area where you make enemies both if you make a misstep and if you succeed. I used to joke with him that the answer to the question “who’d do the dirty work under Socialism?” was “Chris Lennie”. Even on the (two, three?) occasions Chris was Acting General Secretary, it was usually because some financial or political disaster had befallen us, and so everything had to be devoted to sorting it out, while many of those involved were worried, fearful and understandably concerned that they would be on the way out.
What’s more, Chris was never particularly keen on the sort of internal politics that often defines success in party HQ. After I stopped working for the Labour party, I’d often try and get Chris to be a bit disloyal about someone, or something in the Labour party who was, I’d heard, being particularly difficult, or causing him problems, or just being a bit of a Prima Donna. He never once rose to the bait. The most I’d ever get out of him would be a slight pause before he mounted a defence of who-ever it was I thought was driving him up the wall.
Perhaps as a result of that, I wondered if Chris never quite got the respect he was owed in Labour’s London HQ among junior staffers, who associated him mostly with P45s. Because he was willing to energetically subsume himself in the hard, difficult, boring, rations and supplies work, maybe people outside the North-East aren’t quite aware of how sharp his political antennae are. Because he was faultlessly loyal, perhaps others didn’t quite see how he wanted the Labour party to change. Maybe this is why he didn’t get the General Secretary job the last time it came up, though I suspect the answer to that is much more political, and also that the other candidate was pretty good, too.
Though again, it says something about Chris that he’s been utterly loyal to Iain McNicol since the NEC chose Iain, much more so than some people who were heavily backing Iain for the job.
There’s a lesson there, maybe. Some people deserve trust, and earn it, and you admire them the more you know them. Others, not so much.
Certainly, in the more than a decade since I started to work for Chris, my respect, trust and admiration for him has only ever grown. That’s true of very, very few people I’ve worked with. I’ve been lucky in that two of them have been my bosses.
Although this is Chris’s last day officially as a member of Party Staff, I’m sure he’ll be campaigning and working for the Labour party for a long while yet.
Personally, I’d love the party to give Chris an official role, so that free of the burdens of being a loyal paid servant of the party, people who haven’t been lucky enough to work for Chris will get to see why so many of us who have have done, become not just ex-colleagues, but good friends.
Until then – salut!
This was first published here.