Since the announcement last week of Iain McNicol’s resignation, there have been calls from both wings of the party for the position of General Secretary to become an elected one.
The circumstances around the announcement of McNicol’s resignation show why this would be a bad idea.
On Friday, the announcement was precipitated, according to Labour sources, by McNicol’s failure to commit to the suspension of two senior Labour officials in Sandwell in the West Midlands, who have been accused of extremely serious misdeeds ranging from sexual harassment and racism to financial impropriety and interference in local democratic selections.
According to locals in Sandwell, those two officials have been protected by the local Labour bureaucracy for years and have still not been suspended in spite of the seriousness of the allegations – an intolerable situation that was allowed to continue.
McNicol, as an employee of the party at the pleasure of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), could be sacked or, as in this case, allowed to resign – and be replaced by a candidate more willing or able to implement the will of the democratic NEC.
If McNicol had been an elected General Secretary, this could not have happened.
Since his election in 2015, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has lost huge amounts of support among party members because of his behaviour during and after the 2016 ‘chicken coup’ – but because his mandate from 2015 is still in place and a challenger has not, in spite of a near miss last year, been quite able to raise the nominations among MPs to force a contest, he’s still in place. Attempts to remove him were stigmatised by the media as undemocratic.
Electing a General Secretary as well would only add a another, potentially conflicting power-base at the top of the party. If McNicol’s replacement were elected, it’s possible that a right-wing candidate campaigning on – for example – a ‘remain’ ticket might scrape a win and become an obstacle to the internal democratisation of the Labour Party that has made such progress in recent months.
There’s a reason we don’t elect our civil servants – they exist, at least in theory, to carry out the will of those elected by the people, not to exercise their own democratic mandate. So it is with Labour’s General Secretary.
The good news for Labour members is that no such move is on the cards. A new General Secretary is set to be appointed at the next NEC meeting next month – and will be a woman.
And she’ll be a woman with all the right qualities, who has never had an ambition to be General Secretary but who will take on the role for the good of the party at some considerable personal sacrifice – rather like the party’s leader.
Except appointed, not elected – which is something we should all welcome.
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