Labour General Secretary candidate Paul Hilder has taken an unusual approach to his application. Perhaps as a response to his status as a long-odds outside prospect, Hilder has set out a ‘manifesto’ of his ideas, published on LabourList.
The SKWAWKBOX quizzed Hilder about his ideas – and he responded to many, but not all of our questions:
1. Some parts of your document come across a bit ‘management-speak’ and are high-level rather than practical steps. How would you respond if people make that criticism?
One person’s “management speak” is another person’s competence. The ideas are what count.
2. Similarly, there will be some who are worried that further ‘professionalising’ what has so far been organic might undermine its authenticity. What would you say to them?
I prefer focusing on “competence” rather than “professionalism”. Professionalism too often degenerates into laziness and claims of bureaucratic power. Competence is a judgment call; it’s about being able to get big things done.
3. You say it needs a ‘world-class campaign leader’, but those don’t exactly grow on trees. Any thoughts as to specific people or at least the traits/background of someone suitable?
There are lots of people who are exceptional campaigners but have been put off by the greasy poles of British politics. This is still almost as true for Labour under Corbyn as it was for Labour under Blair and Brown.
But it could be turned around with a new #GS4TheMany, a serious project of culture change, pushback on the politics of patronage in appointments, and fierce headhunting for the best talents in the country, or for that matter beyond – why not bring in Bernie and Podemos people?
4. You’ve recommended a ‘rapid review’ of opportunities for innovation/improvements – fine as far as it goes, but saying that’s not the hard part. How would the review be done and have you already identified any areas?
The initial areas for the review I proposed back in December [include] a million member drive and big organising. Of course, now there is a Gen Sec race, we can have a much bigger conversation about everything from opening up the machine to deep democracy. These are the key planks of my manifesto for change. I invite everyone to get involved in the conversation.
5. Your ‘million-member drive’, nobody’s going to say no to 400,000 more members – but again it’s easy to say. Again, what’s the nitty-gritty of how that would be achieved?
6. Some of what you’ve recommended in terms of pitching policy by consultation with the public will worry people who remember the focus groups and ‘triangulation’ of the New Labour years. What’s your response?
7. The ‘rebooted data op’ that you’ve talked about – given concerns about the Tories’ use of ‘big data’ and their closeness to Cambridge Analytica, this might sit ill with Labour members and supporters. How do you see that being done without compromising the authenticity of the movement?
I believe Big Organising is more important than Big Data; but combining the two is increasingly necessary to win big victories. There are two ways of using political data. You can use it to cynically manipulate the electorate, which has been the critique of Trump and Cambridge Analytica. But it is also possible to use data in ethical ways to empower the 99% (including by giving data to frontline campaigners in the movement all around the country) to understand the country better and to engage in deeper conversations with an increasingly diverse public.
In 2017, I have heard from well informed sources that Messina failed to give the Tories an effective data operation. They will not make the same mistake twice. We need to be ahead of them, and we can be.
8. Integration of LOTO and Southside – that’s going to mean major personnel changes, isn’t it? At least at the team-head level?
Integration of LOTO and Southside has already been happening since the general election, under Karie’s capable leadership and with McNicol’s consent.
9. You’ve talked about ‘becoming the media’ – what does that mean?
You may recall the #WeAreHisMedia hashtag. Without personalising too much, I believe that with the age of social media we are returning to a period of much more direct communication between political movements and publics, disintermediating the dead tree media and advertising companies.
10. You’ve spoken about ‘systematically organising outriders’. A lot of commentators say that ‘outriders’ – some say the SKWAWKBOX is one – played a significant role in Labour’s performance in the general elections. How can you ‘systematically organise them’ without their authenticity and effectiveness being compromised?
“Systematically organising” with outriders simply means talking to them regularly and maintaining open two-way communications channels. This must be done in an authentic way which respects the autonomy and independence of allies.
Those who were involved in these processes under the leaderships of both Brown and Obama know very well how a more clumsy top-down outrider management process can fail. I was cut off by Brown’s office for six months at one point because we refused to pull a challenging full-page ad. The failure of Obama is partly down to how he went native in Washington and abandoned the movement that elected him.
11. You’ve been heavily involved in Avaaz and 38 Degrees and have suggested ‘engaging’ them in campaigning. They’ve done some great stuff, but haven’t necessarily seemed to be friends of the Labour movement at times – could they be engaged without losing something central?
The thing people don’t understand about Avaaz and 38 Degrees is that they are genuinely twenty-first century organisations: bottom-up and member-powered. The staff and leadership have an ethic and imperative of service. Nobody can make a real network movement do something that most of its members do not want to do. Their political independence is unbreakable, and they will always maintain the freedom to challenge power, including Labour. They are not perfect. But many, if not all of their challenges have been constructive ones.
In my 2014 New Statesman article on the new politics and the collapse of the old consensus, I talk about 38 Degrees member discussions in which they viewed Cameron and Miliband as “two cheeks on the same ass”. Politicians need to inspire and engage voters and movements if they are to have a chance of winning elections.
12. Your point about prioritising locations for campaign innovation and investment is a good one – isn’t it also a damning indictment of the conduct of the last election by Southside under McNicol?
13. You’ve also talked about the need for ruthlessness near the end of the document. Some members want to see those thought to be obstructing the impetus of the movement be handled more ruthlessly. How would you see it being applied – and by whom?
I believe that Labour’s political leadership has huge compassion and sensitivity, and is also capable of ruthlessness when required. Strength and clarity are both necessary in political management and organisation, and improvements in discipline have been significant over the last eighteen months.
Leaders from Unite can claim a large part of the credit for these incremental improvements, and of course, they provided the lion’s share of the funds for the 2017 general election. But it seems to me that they also have big blind spots.
They need to accept that there are other strands to this movement, and capabilities they are currently missing; and to start collaborating fairly and openly with their allies in this movement. Otherwise Labour will not win the next general election. I would ask everyone to raise their sights and consider this risk seriously. Also, think of the opportunities if we can all work together toward a common goal.
Paul Hilder seems to be a man with a clear desire to see the Labour Party succeed – and to have a lot of ideas how to get there – as well as genuine respect for what the Labour leadership, movement and its union members have achieved so far.
However, he does appear to struggle in bringing high-level ideas down to nitty-gritty basics – and to eliminate jargon from the expression of his ideas: ‘disintermediating’ stood out, especially after a discussion about how to express ideas in simple terms to bring everyone on board, while the question about the practical steps to achieve a significant increase in Labour’s membership went unanswered.
Likely to be of greater concern to many members and supporters behind the ‘Corbyn project’ or inspired by its authenticity is the lack of an answer to the question on the appearance of New Labour-style ‘triangulation’ in some of Hilder’s ideas – of ‘focus-grouping’ ideas and trying to pitch policy toward the least objectionable version.
Those who believe Labour could have won the 2017 General Election if Iain McNicol and his staff had not taken a defensive approach to the campaign, in stark contrast to the positive and inspiring campaign of Corbyn and his supporters, will also be frustrated by Hilder’s apparent reluctance to criticise the approach taken by McNicol’s ‘Southside’ HQ and regional office teams.
His loyalty to his campaigning organisations Avaaz and 38 Degrees is commendable, but members who remember the times those organisations have worked contrary to the party’s aims may be uncomfortable about his interest in working alongside them – especially those who remember the 38 Degrees decision to remove a petition signed by tens of thousands against BBC political editor Laura Kuennsberg on the basis of one or two abusive comments..
Hilder’s approach to the application process may also be a cause for concern in the eyes of some observers. His decision to speak out publicly about his vision for the role and to treat the application as a campaign is understandable for an outside candidate, but the fact that it happened at the same time as the ‘MSM’ were attempting to magnify and exploit supposed divisions between unions and Momentum may well count against him.
That tack could be viewed as an attempt to appeal to those calling for Labour to elect its General Secretary and to manipulate or pressure other candidates and Labour’s NEC into fighting a contest on his terms.
That’s an approach that could be laudable in a campaigns director fighting a general election – but not necessary as compatible with a General Secretary role whose key function is to turn the wishes of the elected leadership and NEC into carried-out actions, day in and day out, election footing or not.
Hilder’s equivocal praise for union contributions to the changes and success of the Labour Party may raise concerns for those who are members of the party as well as of their unions and who recognise that the re-emergence of Labour as a genuine left-wing government in waiting would not have succeeded without the crucial solidarity of Unite and other pro-Corbyn unions at a time when the mainstream media and right-wing Labour MPs were doing everything in their power to cause it to fail.
Paul Hilder’s ideas and approach are certainly interesting – but may be better suited to a campaigns director working for a General Secretary than to the General Secretary role itself.
The SKWAWKBOX continues to endorse Jennie Formby for the General Secretary role.
Hilder’s response to questions about the suspension of (largely Jewish) members on charges of antisemitism can be found here.
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