The Labour party are recruiting a new general secretary. This is not news even to non-Party members. As a member I received the mail-out with the job description listing required criteria and relevant qualifications. It reads like any other job application with a clearly identified process attached to it. But few will besurprised to learn that this cannot be a genuinely competitive application process. Names are already being banded about regarding likely successors to Ray Collins. We won’t hold our breath that a random local party activist with impeccable management and fundraising credentials will stroll into Victoria Street based on the strength of a well-crafted CV and aneloquent interview.The choice will also be political: it will most likely please the unions, but almost certainly will be a man. But the receipt of the email in my inbox, with all the appearance of a real application process, allowed me to wander off in thought for a moment and think how great it would be if this was a real competition and if it was won by a woman.
The Labour Party has had one female General Secretary since the position was created at the turn of the twentieth century but has never had a female party leader. There is something unnerving about this statistic and the realisation that Margaret Thatcher, the most conservative of Conservatives, therefore has an important, if incongruous, place in the wider scheme of progress in UK politics.
There is no doubt that, as a party, Labour has gone much further than their rivals to secure female representation in parliament. The introduction of all-women short-lists and the ground-breaking (if slightly nauseating)‘Blair babes’ following the ‘97 election was a truly reforming moment for progressive politics. Encouragingly the 2010 intake continues this trend, but the gender balance in Parliament is not reflected in other areas of the party namely the Unions or grass roots leadership.
Make no mistake, the appointment of the next General Secretary, is an important one. The party is badly burnt from the last election and has much work to do to get itself in a place where it can credibly fight a general election as an alternative party of government. It needs to fill its coffers, re-establish relationships with the business community, and grow a dwindling pool of donors. It also needs to streamline operations to create a slick policy and media machine that can both respond and rebut opposition but also generate good stories and electorally viable policies. Our staff also needs motivation and inspiration so that working for the party offers career development, job satisfaction and opportunities to shape debate. The job description’s final requirement states a commitment to Labour party values – which should perhaps have been given priority rather than languishing at the bottom of the list. The party must live and breathe its values so that, for those who share them, it becomes an attractive place to work, a credible fundraising machine and an exciting and dynamic organisation of which to be a member.
There has been a surge in new members since the election (a fact not really borne out by the local elections). There were a vast number of disenfranchised voters who felt that they could notvote for the Labour party but remain concerned by the regressive politics of the Coalition. The new general secretary could come to epitomise a forward looking, progressive party. I am not saying that a man couldn’t do all of this. But the appointment, or at least serious consideration of a woman, is the best way to ensure what the Party needs most – and that’s the best person for the job.