Chris Lennie was Ed Miliband’s choice to be Labour’s general secretary, as Dan Hodges reported some time ago, in the absence of what one aide described to me as a “wow factor” candidate.
Lennie, the deputy gensec, was seen by Miliband’s aides as the candidate who could stop the unions’ choice, Iain McNicol of the GMB: ironic, given that Lennie* himself was a Unison official until 2001. (Ray Collins, the previous incumbent – and Gordon Brown’s second choice – was a former T&G official).
Yet McNicol was always thought to be a likely victor by those in the know, as we predicted as early as February on this blog.
(It’s worth noting that the final shortlist was decided by a handful of officials and NEC figures including Tom Watson – McNicol’s former flatmate.)
You can see why Miliband would not want a former union official, given the (accurate) narrative that he only won the leadership contest because of the backing of the biggest unions. But McNicol is pragmatic; he is no frothing Trotskyite, set on bringing back tractor production targets and closing down the London Stock Exchange.
The timing of Charles Allen’s appointment yesterday to “review Labour’s structures” does look suspicious: why has the former ITV chief executive been brought in alongside McNicol to do similar tasks of fund-raising and organisation? Aides insist that Allen was first approached three months ago, and his appointment should not be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the new general secretary.
Yet there are several challenges ahead for McNicol, in no particular order:
1] He needs to improve relations between Victoria Street and Ed Miliband’s private office in the House of Commons. The two rival power bases have not always been seeing eye to eye in recent months.
Just one example: Alex Smith, a former aide to Ed Miliband, was asked to write a document analysing the strengths and weaknesses of Labour’s online/new media policy. The resulting essay so infuriated colleagues in Victoria Street that they demanded Smith’s departure. He has since gone freelance, although still doing occasional work for Miliband.
2] He will need to handle Andrew Rosenfeld, who – although this has not yet been announced – is giving the party £1m to fight the next election in marginal seats. I revealed in this morning’s FT that Rosenfeld is spending up to two days a week at Victoria Street in discussions with officials. (The party has refused to comment).
Rosenfeld, said to be worth £100m, is a smooth property tycoon who until recently was living in Switzerland, the tax haven**. The GMB, where McNicol used to be political officer, has campaigned strongly against tax avoidance. As such the two men are not natural bedfellows.
(Also Minerva, where Rosenfeld used to be chief executive, got into controversy in 2005 when Allders went into administration. Minerva, despite being the largest shareholder in the vehicle that owned Allders, took no liability for the group’s £68m pension deficit.)
3] Relations with the unions. Some Blairites believe that with McNicol on board, Labour will now be less likely to carry out any dilution of union influence. (Not that Miliband has ever fully and publically pledged to do this). The challenge for the new gensec will be to find a way to engineer a symbolic move – either reducing the unions’ influence over policymaking or over leadership elections – without antagonising the brotherhood. It is not an enviable task.
* One Victoria Street insider tells me that Chris Lennie’s nickname in the building is “the tailor”, given his ability to “stitch up”. He was involved in expelling both George Galloway and the RMT from Labour. I’m not certain how widespread this nickname is, however.
** Although to be fair he is also a generous philanthropist