Labour's general secretary shouldn't be elected by membership, Corbyn ally Chris Williamson says


Labour’s general secretary should not be elected by the membership as it could run the risk of establishing an alternative power base in the party, according to a prominent ally of Jeremy Corbyn. 

In an interview with The Independent, Chris Williamson, who resigned from his shadow ministerial post earlier this year, also said that MPs should no longer have the power to act as “gatekeepers” in future leadership contests.

The comments from Mr Williamson come amid divisions on the left of the party over the desired successor to Iain McNicol, who dramatically resigned as general secretary last month after nearly seven years in the job.

It is expected that Labour will announce its new general secretary on 20 March following interviews conducted by the party’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC). 

But some left-wing activists, including the Momentum founder Jon Lansman who dropped out of the race on Sunday, have suggested that future contests for the position should be elected directly by Labour’s growing membership – now one of the largest in Western Europe. 

“This way we can guarantee continuing accountability through the NEC, but also show that we are a party of democracy and pluralism,” Mr Lansman said.

But asked by The Independent whether he backed such a reform Mr Williamson replied: “Well, I’ve got conflicting views about that really. On balance, I would say no because it’s an administrative role. We elect our leader, we elect our NEC – they are the people who are accountable to the members. 

“And then you have staff who work for the party, who are accountable to the NEC and I just think potentially the whole phrase: ‘Be careful what you wish for’. You’re setting up like an alternative power base, it seems to me, potentially. It could potentially lead to conflict between the leader and the general secretary. 

“Initially it sounded quite a seductive proposition but having thought about it I think probably isn’t the right way to go.”

Mr Williamson said if the proposed reform was the view of the party “then fine go with it”, but continued: “I don’t think it would be the right move in my view.” 

It is expected the shortlist for the general secretary role will be announced on Tuesday with the Unite union’s former political director Jennie Formby being the Labour leadership’s desired candidate.

The former shadow fire minister – a prominent advocate of mandatory reselection of MPs – also said he would like to see changes to the way in which Labour leaders are elected. At the party conference in Brighton last year it was decided to reduce the threshold from 15 to 10 per cent of MPs that are required to nominate a candidate for a place on the leadership ballot. 

“I’d rather have no threshold,” Mr Williamson said. “In fact, in terms of gatekeepers I wouldn’t have MPs. What I would have as gatekeeper is the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). I don’t think MPs should be the gatekeepers, absolutely not. They are only a very, very tiny proportion of the overall party.” 

He continued: “It’s an elitist approach in a sense that somehow MPs are put in a special privileged position to be able to determine and be a gatekeeper over who should be on the ballot paper for the members to decide who they want to be their leader. It is up to the members to decide who they want to be their leader.” 

Mr Williamson, who was re-elected as an MP for Derby North at the 2017 snap general election after being ousted in 2015, also said he was “absolutely convinced” Mr Corbyn will win the next election and predicted he will be in Downing Street in 12 months’ time. 

“I’ve said he’ll be the greatest prime minister this country has ever seen, and I really believe that,” he said. “Better than Clem[ent] Attlee in my view. I think he will be.” 

But Mr Williamson believes the route back to power is not by winning over Conservative voters but by mobilising those who don’t typically vote.

“One of the things I used have a discussion and difference with some of the people in the Parliamentary Labour Party in the past is that I believed and still do believe, in the last election we were able to persuade people who have previously given up on voting,” he said. 

“I think what we’ve got to do is give people a reason to vote. There’s still a lot of people who didn’t vote – in Derby North it was around 20,000 people who didn’t vote. Now I am not saying we’re going to get everybody to vote but there’s scope for us to inspire people to participate, and I don’t think the polls are reflecting that. I think they are weighting the polls in a way which kind of depresses Labour’s vote.”

He continued: “Our route back to power, they were saying, is that we’ve got to persuade people who voted Conservative to vote Labour. Now I’m not against Tories voting Labour but that isn’t our route back to power.”

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