The process and politics of picking Labour’s general secretaries

Luke Akehurst

On May 26th, Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) will meet to appoint its 18th general secretary. As head of the paid staff of the party and secretary to the NEC, the general secretary (GS) is a very powerful role with particular responsibility for: planning election campaigning; hiring and firing other senior staff; refereeing the party’s internal democracy such as selections, conferences and internal elections; and acting as custodian of the rulebook and taking appropriate disciplinary action when party rules have been breached.

Who were the previous 17 general secretaries (titled secretary rather than GS until the 1940s)? The first two were more obviously politicians than civil servants of the party. Ramsay MacDonald (GS 1900-1912) was an MP as well as general secretary for part of his term – this is no longer possible under party rules – and a decade after his time as general secretary became party leader and then Labour’s first Prime Minister.

His successor as general secretary, Arthur Henderson (GS 1912-1935) had already been leader before he became general secretary. He then served two more stints as leader and as chief whip, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary under MacDonald, all while continuing as GS. It clearly wasn’t a full-time job in the early days.

Herbert Morrison hoped to move up from being secretary of the London Labour Party to succeed Henderson. But he was blocked by personal opponents such as Ernest Bevin, who didn’t want the pattern of front-rank politicians holding the role to continue, and particularly didn’t want Morrison to gain more power over the party machinery.

There then followed a period where the general secretaries emerged from the ranks of long-term party staff below them, and were perceived more as disciplinarian heads of the party bureaucracy and enforcers for the predominantly moderate senior parliamentary leadership. James Middleton (GS 1935-1944) was promoted to GS after many years as assistant GS, and saw off efforts to create a Popular Front electoral coalition with the Communists during the 1930s.

Morgan Phillips (GS 1944-1962) served for 18 years under Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell, having been promoted from secretary of the research department. He professionalised the party machinery and propaganda to help enable the 1945 landslide, as well as playing a partisan role in the battles between the leadership and Nye Bevan and his supporters. He also helped rebuild the Socialist International after WW2 and served as its chair for nine years.

After Phillips suffered a stroke, he was succeeded by the national agent, Len Williams (GS 1962-1968), who oversaw the 1964 and 1966 victories. Williams was then briefly succeeded as interim GS by Sara Barker, also a former national agent, with a formidable reputation in that role. Yet another former national agent, Ron Hayward, served from 1972 to 1982, but unlike his predecessors came from the left of the party.

After Barker, in 1968, the pattern of senior party staff rising to the role became less firm, and the party started a period where the GS was often recruited from among the senior officers of one or other of the major affiliated unions. This was seen as proof that they had the ability to manage a large organisation, and it consolidated union influence over the party machinery.

Harry Nicholas (GS 1968-1972) had been AGS of the TGWU, who had fallen out of favour in his own union as it moved leftwards. He was seen as competent but didn’t manage to deliver an election win in 1970.

Whilst Jim Mortimer (GS 1982-1985) looked like a quirky external appointment having previously run the conciliation service ACAS, he was – like Hayward – a left-wing former union official (in his case with the Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen). He presided over a nadir in Labour’s fortunes with the SDP breakaway, the rise of the Trotskyist group Militant, and the 1983 landslide defeat.

Former GMB official Larry Whitty (GS 1985-1994) helped comprehensively rebuild the party under Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s leaderships. His successor Tom Sawyer (GS 1994-1998) was a former NUPE AGS who had played a critical role on the NEC in realigning the soft left away from Tony Benn and towards support for Kinnock’s leadership. As GS, he oversaw the 1997 landslide victory.

After Sawyer, Tony Blair moved away from general secretaries from the major affiliated unions, and also got through them at an incredible rate. Historically, general secretaries served for a long time. There were only nine in the first 98 years of the party’s history, including a 23-year stint by Henderson and an 18-year one by Morgan Phillips.

But under Blair there were four general secretaries in nine years. Margaret McDonagh (GS 1998-2001) was Labour’s first permanent female GS. Having already played a key role in the 1997 campaign, she delivered another landslide victory in 2001.

After McDonagh’s emphasis on nuts and bolts campaigning, Blair wanted a GS with a different focus – on policy development. He brought in David Triesman (GS 2001-2003), the general secretary of AUT, the non-Labour affiliated university lecturers’ union.

After just two years, Triesman was replaced by Matt Carter (GS 2003-2005), aged only 31, an internal promotion from AGS. Carter delivered a third victory for Blair in 2005. He was succeeded by Peter Watt (GS 2005-2007), promoted internally from director of finance and compliance. Watt had to resign over a scandal around reporting of donations and loans relating to the 2005 election campaign.

The rapid turnover of GSs in this period was seen as having reduced the influence and status of the role, with power accruing to the Prime Minister’s advisers in 10 Downing Street rather than to Labour HQ.

Since 2007, there has been a reversion to general secretaries recruited from the senior ranks of the affiliated unions. Ray Collins (GS 2008-2011) had been AGS of the TGWU, helping run the merger with Amicus that created Unite. Iain McNicol (GS 2011-2018) had been national political officer of the GMB. Jennie Formby (GS 2018-2020) had been political director and then a regional secretary at Unite.

Given the political nature of the role, the appointment of general secretary is intrinsically political. The rulebook says: “The general secretary shall be elected by party conference on the recommendation of the NEC”. In practice, this means the NEC elects the GS and their pick is then rubber-stamped by acclamation at the next annual conference.

The decision on a GS is an employment appointment, with NEC members reminded that they have to obey employment law about equal opportunities, and carefully consider how the candidates match up to the job specification and capabilities required. But it has characteristics of a political election, as the decision-makers are the elected members of the NEC, the candidates have known political views, and the NEC takes the decision by a secret ballot vote.

It is the point at which individual members of the NEC have the most power, and every vote matters. They don’t have wholly equal power, as longlisting and shortlisting is usually done by a smaller body – sometimes a panel set up for that purpose, and sometimes the NEC officers’ group (as with the process this time). It isn’t impossible for the candidate who might have won at the full NEC not to get that far as they don’t get longlisted or shortlisted.

Whilst Jennie Formby would probably have won anyway, the 2018 contest saw the leadership leave nothing to chance by shortlisting only one other candidate, Christine Blower, who had similar political views to Formby but had been a candidate for far left parties against Labour. By contrast, in 1998 the NEC could choose between the DGS of the party (McDonagh) and two very capable AGSs, David Gardner and Matthew Taylor.

Leaders like to try to get the GS of their choice but aren’t always successful. Peter Watt was not Blair’s pick in 2005, and won by 16-11 with support from the left, despite having rather Blairite political views. He defeated Ray Collins, who was backed by Downing Street, and who eventually succeeded him. Another Labour PM, Harold Wilson, failed to get his choice, the left-wing minister Tony Greenwood, when the NEC instead backed Harry Nicholas, a product of Ernie Bevin’s moderate machine in the TGWU.

More recently, Iain McNicol was not Ed Miliband’s candidate for GS. Ed backed Chris Lennie, the party’s DGS, despite Iain having delivered heavy support from the GMB for Ed in the 2010 leadership election. This election, which took place during my time on the NEC, illustrates that the coalitions behind successful GS candidates are not necessarily formed along simplistic left vs right lines. I voted alongside Ellie Reeves, Ann Black, Johanna Baxter, Christine Shawcroft, Unite and the GMB for Iain, whereas I am fairly certain Ken Livingstone voted for the leader’s candidate, along with UNISON and Usdaw.

General secretary elections can be exceptionally close, with the vote of one member having significant political consequences. In 1972, Ron Hayward got 14 votes and so did his rival Gwyn Morgan. Hayward was elected on the casting vote of the NEC chair, Tony Benn. Hayward had been backed by the Bennite left and by the leader, Harold Wilson, who was worried by Morgan’s credentials as a pro-European from the Gaitskellite right, and his links to Roy Jenkins and Jim Callaghan. This narrow victory meant that Hayward was beholden to the left on issues like taking on Militant (he didn’t) and advocating for policies passed by conference even when these weren’t what the PM and cabinet wanted.

With so much at stake, the pressure on NEC members from the leadership and the backers of rival candidates can be incredibly intense. I was invited to a one-on-one meeting with Ed Miliband to secure my vote in 2011. It didn’t work, but it shows the amount of time leaders will put into securing the GS they want.

I envy the current NEC members the power that they have to take such a critical decision for Labour’s future, but also sympathise with them over the pressure they will be under from all sides. In my experience, NEC members take this decision extremely seriously. They know it is vital to the health of the party that it has the most capable professional team in HQ as possible. They will be balancing a range of different considerations, such as:

  • Do the candidates have the right experience of managing large budgets and large numbers of staff?
  • Do they have experience of leading election campaigns?
  • Will they be supportive of and have a good relationship with the leader?
  • Can they handle a multiplicity of fraught relationships with stakeholders including MPs and affiliates?
  • Will they be able to bring positive improvements to a party machinery that clearly isn’t working as we keep losing elections?
  • Will they be able to take action to deal with the antisemitism crisis that has engulfed the party, and implement the recommendations of the EHRC investigation?

Let’s hope they make a good choice.

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