The announcement last week that Ian McNicol is leaving his role as Labour Party General Secretary leaves an opening for one of the most important jobs in the labour movement. McNicol is one of the longest serving General Secretaries, with a tenure spanning seven years that included three General Elections, two leadership elections and a transformation of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
It has been an open secret that the relationship between the leader’s office and McNicol has been strained, especially when McNicol was briefing legal advice that Corbyn wouldn’t automatically be on the ballot paper for the leadership election following the 2016 coup. While relations have apparently improved since the better-than-expected performance in the 2017 snap election, but that also put the writing on the wall for McNicol in the long-run.
So the way is now clear for a Corbyn supporter to be appointed to the position, though that may not be a certainty. McNicol wasn’t the preference of Ed Miliband back in 2011, and while there is a clear left majority on the National Executive Committee, there isn’t always a clear Corbynite one.
The role has traditionally been filled by a senior official from the trade union movement, and with McNicol coming from the GMB and his predecessor Ray Collins from Unite, Unison may feel that their preferred candidate should be given first run. The NEC officers will draw up a shortlist before a final decision is made. Despite support for the idea of giving the members a vote on the appointment, it seems unlikely this time round given the timeframe.
Some of the possible contenders this time round include:
‘The safe bet’ -Andrew Murray – Currently the Chief of Staff at Unite, having returned from a short break to coordinate Labour’s election campaign in 2017 for which he received widespread praise. Only recently joined the Labour Party following a long-term membership of the Communist Party and has never held elected office within the Labour Party. Murray recently started working in the leader’s office as a part-time consultant, joining his daughter who has worked there for some time. His appointment would be seen as a further cementing on the strength of Unite in the Leader’s office and would probably be strongly opposed by non-Corbynites both on the NEC and in the wider party.
Jennie Formby – The hot favourite in the early running, Formby is the former Political Director at Unite and has been a member of the Labour NEC for some time. She is currently the Unite Regional Director for the south-east. A close ally of Len McCluskey and thought to be the favoured candidate for the largest union. It’s thought that she may face oppoisition from the GMB and Unison unions
Sam Tarry – Currently Political Officer at the TSSA, a Labour local councillor and strong Corbyn supporter who has made various media appearances to defend the leader, especially during the summer coup of 2016. Whether the TSSA has the clout on the NEC to push through a preferred appointment and whether Tarry is seen as having sufficient experience, remains to be seen.
Emilie Oldknow – A party official with long service currently an Executive Director, Oldknow contested the Nottinghamshire seat of Sherwood unsuccessfully in the 2010 General Election and moved into the party machinery rather than seek election again. Oldknow was part of Ed Miliband’s team during his leadership and is married to Shadow Health Secretary John Ashworth. Not seen as a Corbynite, but many have praised her ability to work across factional divides and therefore a possible unity candidate.
‘The dark horse’ Jon Lansman – Been around the Labour left for decades and ran Tony Benn’s campaign for Deputy Leader in the early 1980’s. After playing a key role in the 2015 leadership election Lansman set up Momentum and was elected to the NEC following the increase in the number of membership representatives. With clear organising experience Lansman would be a solid choice, but his handling of internal matters within Momentum did lose him some supporters.