POLITICS

Labour's New General Secretary: His Dramatic Win And Why He Is The Insurgency Candidate

26/07/2011 06:37 | Updated 24 September 2011

Scratch the surface of any story about the Labour party, and you will usually find drama. Iain McNicol's bid to be its general secretary was no different.

The choice between the two short-listed candidates Chris Lennie, the deputy general secretary and head of fundraising for the party, and McNicol, the political officer for the GMB union, was described by one former member of Labour's National Executive Committee [NEC] as "a battle for the party's soul".

Amid rumblings that Lennie was Ed Miliband's favoured candidate, the grassroots of the party swept into action.

As Mark Ferguson, editor of website LabourList says: "There were suggestions that the race was going to be a stitch-up, but fortunately that wasn't the case." Vice-chair of the Fabian society Jessica Asato agrees, saying it marks a change from the "control freakery" of Labour.

Lennie was the continuity candidate in a party that could not survive more of the same. Almost bankrupt, exhausted by the power struggles of the Blair-Brown era and the subsequent psychodrama between the Milibands to become leader, and operating in a landscape where fewer people choose to join a political party.

That's not how McNicol sees it though. The personable Scot maintains the job was "absolutely not" predetermined in either direction.

"I don't think it was a stitch up", he says. "The NEC had a decision to make on the candidates that were in front of them. My take on it is that the NEC obviously thought that my presentation was a good presentation and I think it could have gone either way."

The sense remains, however, that McNicol was picked because he was not a Victoria Street staffer. As NEC member Luke Akehurst blogged, "I think the NEC voted for Iain because we believe he will really shake-up the party. We want change." But in voting against Lennie, did Labour shoot themselves in the foot? McNicol, with his background in GMB, was a risky choice for the role.

Almost immediately after his selection, the Conservative party chairwoman Baroness Warsi swept into action, declaring it "another victory for the union barons":

"Since Mr. McNicol started at GMB, the union has donated almost £12 million to Labour - as well as £28,000 to Ed Miliband's leadership campaign last year... It's the latest sign of how Labour under Ed Miliband is abandoning the centre ground of British politics".

McNicol has worked with the GMB since 1998. His support for Ed Miliband was crucial to the Labour leader winning his bid to run the party, and the two men are said to be close despite the leader's apparently ambivalent support for his bid to become general secretary.

Before GMB McNicol worked within the Labour party as an organiser and as a student. The 41 year-old says the decision to run was easy. A member since 1987, he claims: "As soon as Ray Collins had announced he was standing down I decided to run for the job".

For him it's an "opportunity". "When it came to the Labour party I had a lot of experience as an organiser and a lot of contacts. I'd been in the movement for 20 years. I just thought I've got a lot of skills I could bring to it. It sounds a little bit arrogant but I just thought I could do a job."

Mark Ferguson is adamant McNicol's priority will be the Labour party: "Iain may have worked for trade unions but he's a Labour man through and through...I think it's always positive for Labour to have links with the unions. Chris Lennie had links with the unions, he was a former union staffer, they were both union staffers.

"The leader of the party is Ed Miliband but the person who manages the staff and is effectively the line manager of the staff is the general secretary. Organisationally, which is where the next general election will be won, Iain is the best man."

McNicol is well-liked amongst many Labour party activists. For Asato, he's not a "loony left eighties caricature": "Iain has a long history of serving both the Labour party and the trade union movement but I think his key insight is in how the Labour party needs to really become a kind of movement party rather than a kind of institution and that he's somebody who's heart is within the party but he doesn't come from the party establishment. He'll approach some of the issues that have dogged the party over the last 15 years with a vibrancy and a freshness that have been lacking."

She adds: "He doesn't see the membership as something to be feared but it's something to be tapped and engaged with".

McNicol is, to Labour members and activists, the candidate for change: An insurgency General Secretary for an insurgency leader.

His new role fits in with Labour's plan to re-found itself. A recent interim report detailing the party's plan to change makes three key recommendations: Involving unions and a local level, inviting trade union members to constituency Labour parties, and looking at a "gender balanced" ticket for the leadership, where either the leader or deputy leader is always a woman.

As NEC member Joanna Baxter says: "He's got a tonne of ideas about how to move the party forward and implement things that will come out of Refounding Labour which I think is really important. He very much demonstrated his passion for change and driving change from the top."

For the Conservatives, the plans to change the party merely represent more "navel gazing" from Labour. Baroness Warsi has accused them of being "more interested in appeasing their Union paymasters than dealing with the big issues our country faces."

So what does McNicol think? For him, working for Labour is about "coming home" and he is unapologetic for his years spent working in the unions.

"I was a Labour student at the same time as Jim Murphy and people like that, in the early 90s and it was fantastic. I spent a lot of time in student politics, I met some brilliant people who became lifelong friends.

"Yes the last 14 years working for the GMB, they're part of me, you don't spend 14 years doing something without that but I spent time in the south, in Surrey doing industrial work."

The most important point? He's there to help Labour win through organising, whereas Ed Miliband is there to deal with politics.

"Every single organisation inside the Labour party or around the left believes in moving things to a more local level and building up more contacts. It's not a political thing. My politics is about getting Labour elected and Labour wining. The politicians are there to deal with politics, I'm there to deal with Labour."

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