A year ago today Iain McNicol was selected by the Labour Party NEC as General Secretary. To mark a year since his selection, I put the following 10 questions to him, on policy making, selections, organisation and party reform. Here are his answers:
1. You were elected last July. As we approach conference (when you actually took over) we can see there have already been significant changes in the party – what is the priority for your second year?
In the past 10 months we have made significant progress in challenging and changing the culture of the party that had become entrenched in a command and control mind-set.
That approach has had its day and the vital work has been done to shift the party to respond to a vastly changing political environment
The electoral, political and organisational challenges requires a more decentralised approach than we have used before – and rebuilding the party outside of Westminster will be essential over the coming months.
This will ensure that our greatest strength – our members, supporters, activists and staff – are empowered by strengthening our presence in local communities to campaign for change and to win again.
2.Little has been seen of the Refounding Labour “changes” in the party. Was it a waste of time?
That’s just not true but we should also learn lessons from the Refounding Labour process.
We could and should have been more transparent so that people could build their trust in the way the party works. The fact is – change is our ally in the party. One of the few advantages of opposition is the chance to renew and change. And we are better placed to respond to the progressive voices in our country now than we have been for some time.
Refounding Labour is key to empowering local parties to adapt structures to suit them and how they campaign. It’s been particularly important in rebuilding small and neglected parties.
The NEC Local Campaigns and improvement, diversity and democracy fund is now supporting 27 new local organisers, as well as initiatives like Gavin Shuker’s summer school to train young people in how to campaign.
The Future Candidates programme is strengthened and improved and is starting to bear fruit, and there will be much more over the summer as further change is policy making and organisation takes place.
3. Ed Miliband has said he wants 200 new organisers. How can the party afford them whilst making redundancies?
I’m very pleased Ed is calling for 200 organisers and I want them too. As I have previously said my priority is to deliver resources focussed in our communities in ways that deliver change and win elections. It hasn’t been an easy time for many Party staff recently as we have gone through a voluntary severance scheme and restructure but that is bringing down costs at HQ. My plan, when finances allow, is that we will be hiring locally and regionally as much as possible as we lead into the next election. The NEC campaign fund is just the start.
But this restructure and change process isn’t just about reducing costs, we also need to raise more money. We will soon have a new Executive Director Commercial who will have the task of recalibrating the party’s fundraising and commercial activities. We must raise more funds to deliver the organisation capable of winning the next election.
4.The Labour Party plans to select 100 candidates in the next 12 months – but the system for selections still feels obscure and closed even for many long serving activists. How can selections be opened up?
Selecting candidates early is a priority for me. It gives focus to our campaigns, creates a new organisational network in local communities and vitally provides leadership.
We already have some excellent PPCs and I want more, and quickly.
The way we select candidates will always come under the spot light. And I agree that we must do more to open them up.
We have launched a future candidates programme which is supporting people to acquire the confidence, skills and understanding they need to be ready for the selection process at all levels.
The self nomination process also creates more opportunities for people to put themselves forward and we will continue to use AWS to improve gender balance in the party.
But we must go further in terms of transparency. I can promise here that as soon as a new tranche of selections is approved by the NEC organisational sub-committee every party member will be notified.
5.Is the “fixing” culture in the party a thing of the past? If so, how? And if not, how do we make sure it is?
I’m not willing to comment on any rumour, speculation or incident in the past that may be seen as part of a fixing culture. And as long as I am General Secretary a fixing culture will not be tolerated and I want to make sure that the party understand its role in internal elections and administrates them fairly, never interfering in them.
6.The party is trying to get more working class candidates in place through the future candidates’ scheme, but so far none of the scheme’s graduates have been selected as a PPC. Is the scheme working?
This is early days and we are ambitious on this one. Although we are selecting early we still have only selected a few of our candidates for the next General Election and I hope over time the Future Candidates programme will help develop leadership and experience for politicians that serve their communities at all levels.
In fact at local government level it has already been successful, and this will be increasingly important in showing how different we are as a party from the past and from our opponents. Marvin Rees, our candidate for mayor in Bristol is an excellent example of the success of the programme so far. And our business stream, encouraging entrepreneurs to consider standing for labour, as well as the summer school for trade union members considering running for office are both good example of the scale of our ambition on this.
7.Are you in favour of converting union affiliates into full party members to create one form of party membership (as backed by LabourList readers in the past?)
8.Ed Miliband, Jon Cruddas, Angela Eagle and yourself have all talked about giving members a say on policy – does that mean the return of policy votes at conference? A beefed up NPF? Or a ballot of members on the manifesto?
We will have a transformed policy process based on the principle of transparency and dialogue. There will be more interaction with members and the wider community. Policy will be at the heart of campaigning at a local level and successful campaigns will feed into the national conversation.
The new program will put member’s ideas at the centre of the process and our feedback and outreach functions must be developed to ensure we use policy to empower and inspire people. . An open process will give us all the opportunity to have our say, and give us the chance to see why and how decisions are made and better test and evaluate policy.
The Labour Party has talked a lot about transparency over the past few years – this is our chance to deliver.
9.What is the biggest mistake you or the party have made since you became Gen Secretary?
The Bradford West by-election. I took this job promising to change the way the party conducts itself, and instead delivered an off-the-shelf by-election model. I am more determined than ever to drive through more reform following that result. From now on winning elections will be a means to an end, not an end in itself. The initial report to the NEC about what went wrong is being acted on and we have put the lessons learned at the centre of our re-engineering the party at local level to be focussed on the communities we seek to serve.
10.What are you most proud of in your time as General Secretary?
We have had significant electoral successes this year and the Party is moving on from defeat in 2010 with strong confident leadership and a new party structure. Part of that is about shifting the party out of government mode, and giving us all an opportunity to change and adapt to the new circumstances we find ourselves in.
The pace of change has been profound and I’m proud of that. We have so much to do if we want to be a one term opposition, so even though we have done a lot this year, I’m keen to press on and change more.
The electoral success in May was great but it was based on low turnout and a sense of a “plague on all your houses”. Our change as a party will help to change that. We are uniquely placed because of the nature and character of our party to rebuild trust with the British people about politics, and as the Labour Party as a vehicle for change, so I’m enormously optimistic about the future.