General Secretary of the Labour Party

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Group.png General Secretary of the Labour Party  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png

The General Secretary of the Labour Party is the most senior employee of the British Labour Party, and acts as the non-voting Secretary to the National Executive Committee (NEC). When there is a vacancy the NEC selects a provisional replacement, subject to approval at the subsequent Party Conference.

On 20 March 2018, Jennie Formby gained what the BBC understands is the overwhelming support of Labour's ruling NEC to defeat Christine Blower for the post of Labour's General Secretary, following the resignation of Iain McNicol.[1]

In April 2020, following Keir Starmer's election as Leader of the Labour Party, there were rumours that former senior Labour official Emilie Oldknow would be appointed General Secretary.[2] On 4 May 2020, Jennie Formby resigned as General Secretary, and the Labour Party was quick to advertise the vacancy.[3]

The Huffington Post reported: "Formby is not expected to be recommended for a peerage, as several previous General Secretaries have been."[4]

On 26 May 2020 David Evans, a former Assistant General Secretary (1999 to 2001), was appointed General Secretary.[5]

Party structure

The General Secretary heads a staff of around 200 in the two head offices, in London and Tyneside, and in the many local offices around the country. The Scottish and Welsh Labour Parties are headed by their own General Secretaries, in practice subordinate to the national General Secretary.

The General Secretary is responsible for employing staff; campaign and media strategies; running the Party's organisational, constitutional and policy committees; organising the Party Conference; liaison with the Socialist International and Party of European Socialists; ensuring legal and constitutional propriety; preparing literature.

The General Secretary also acts as the Registered Treasurer under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, responsible for preparing accurate financial statements.[6]

As the Labour Party is an unincorporated association without a separate legal personality,[7] the General Secretary represents the party on behalf of the other members of the Labour Party in any legal matters or actions.[8]


The post of Party Secretary was created in 1900 at the birth of the Labour Party. The first holder of that position was Ramsay MacDonald, later Prime Minister. In these early years, the post was a very important one, effectively leading the Party outside Parliament. MacDonald and his successor, Arthur Henderson, were both Members of Parliament and for a period were both Chairmen of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) whilst Party Secretary.

Upon Henderson's retirement in 1934, after the 1931 debacle which had seen MacDonald expelled from the Party, it was decided that the position should be separated from the PLP, and power should not be concentrated in the hands of one person. Therefore, Henderson's successor would not be allowed to become a Member of Parliament. This ruled out the strongest contender, Herbert Morrison, and others with parliamentary ambitions. Finally, James Middleton, Assistant Secretary since 1903, was chosen. He was a quiet-spoken man and the job lost much of its previous importance. However, the National Executive Committee grew in influence.

During World War II, Morgan Phillips became General Secretary and went on to oversee two General Election victories. A Welshman, he had been a miner but was instrumental in widening Labour's appeal to the middle classes. He also built a professional Party, with key employees working on policy development and electoral organisation.

When Leonard Williams, the General Secretary of the early Wilson years, retired in 1968, he was expected to be replaced by someone younger who could transform the Party and lead it to a third successive victory. However, the Party chose Harry Nicholas, a long-serving left-wing T&G union figure and went on to lose the 1970 General Election.

The 1970s and early-1980s saw developing confrontations between the left and the right in the Party. Jim Mortimer and Larry Whitty worked hard to keep the Party together after the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the rise of the Militant Tendency. Whitty oversaw the reforms of Neil Kinnock and stayed on until the election of Tony Blair as Leader. It would be Tom Sawyer who would put in place Blair's New Labour reforms, with the creation of the National Policy Forum, the change to Clause IV and the perceived erosion of the power of grassroots members. He opened new offices in Millbank and created a highly-professional, media-savvy, youthful staff and Party that worked for Labour's landslide victory in the 1997 General Election.

Crucial to this period was the transformation of the party apparatus from an alternative centre of power to the parliamentary leadership (largely a product of the 1970s when the party conference repeatedly disowned government policy), to being more congruent with the leadership's ideas for progress.

In fact the roots of the transformation probably date back to the appointment of Peter Mandelson as the party's communications director in 1985, but under Blair (and Sawyer) rapidly accelerated.

Margaret McDonagh became Labour's first permanent female General Secretary in 1998. She had been a rising star and formidable organiser in the run-up to the 1997 General Election, seen as the key party official responsible for the record landslide victory, but her fearsome style did not endear her to Party members and the left. She was considered to have badly mishandled the party's London mayoral candidate selection process, which resulted in Ken Livingstone winning the 2000 London mayoral election as an independent candidate, leaving the official Labour candidate Frank Dobson in third place, with subsequent disaffection amongst the party members.[9] McDonagh later apologised for the mayoral electoral loss. However her formidable organisational skills contributed to a second landslide in 2001.[10]

McDonagh left after the 2001 General Election victory and was succeeded by David Triesman. The party moved in 2004 to appoint Matt Carter as the youngest-ever General Secretary. He resigned after less than two years following the less than convincing 2005 General Election victory and was replaced in January 2006 by Peter Watt. Watt became embroiled in the funding scandals of 2007 and resigned soon after. In early 2008 David Pitt-Watson, a key Gordon Brown ally, was selected for the post under the banner of party finance reform, but never took up the post "due to contractual difficulties". The poor state of the party's finances following the decision by the leadership of the party to finance the General Election campaign in 2005 by loans meant that the auditors of the party had to inform him that his wealth, after a career partly in the City of London, would be at risk if the party did become bankrupt.[11][12][13] Ray Collins was appointed in 2008, and was succeeded by Iain McNicol in 2011.[14]

McNicol resigns

On 23 February 2018, Iain McNicol announced his resignation, citing a desire to “pursue new projects on behalf of the party and wider Labour movement”.[15] The Labour leadership had indicated they would support Unite the Union's Jennie Formby to succeed McNicol, but Momentum founder Jon Lansman was opposed to a coronation for Jennie Formby, saying he wanted to open up the contest, instigate a debate about how the Labour party can develop and encourage more members to apply:

“We must draw a clear line between our renewed and reinvigorated mass-membership party and previous eras of command and control – where the views of members and affiliates alike were too often ignored, party conference overruled and the NEC disrespected.”[16]

Last-minute application

The deadline for emailed applications to succeed Iain McNicol as General Secretary of the Labour Party was set as "no later than the 13th March 2018". This was Patrick Haseldine's application:

Sent: 13 March 2018 21:53
To: Job Vacancies (
Cc: Len McCluskey; Jon Lansman
Subject: Vacancy for Labour Party General Secretary
Dear Labour Party,
Yesterday in Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May was reported to have threatened me with retaliatory action if I didn't apply for the above vacancy by midnight tonight.
Accordingly, I am pleased and somewhat relieved to attach my completed application form (couldn't figure out how to sign it though).
Also attached is a letter I sent to one of my two referees (Len McCluskey) on 9 January 2017.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Yours comradely,
Patrick Haseldine

Deadpan response
Sent: 14/03/2018 - 11:57
Dear Patrick,
Many thanks for your recent application for the General Secretary role.
We received a high number of applications for this role and I regret to inform you that, on this occasion, your application has unfortunately not been shortlisted to the next round of the recruitment process.
Due to the high volume of applications received for this role, on this occasion we are only able to give feedback to those candidates who were invited to attend an interview.
Thank you so much for your application and for your interest in the Labour Party
With best wishes,
The Human Resources team

List of General Secretaries

1900–1912: Ramsay MacDonald
1912–1935: Arthur Henderson
1935–1944: James Middleton
1944–1962: Morgan Phillips
1962–1968: Len Williams
1968: Sara Barker (acting)[17]
1968–1972: Harry Nicholas
1972–1982: Ron Hayward
1982–1985: Jim Mortimer
1985–1994: Larry Whitty
1994–1998: Tom Sawyer
1998–2001: Margaret McDonagh
2001–2003: David Triesman
2003–2005: Matt Carter
2005–2007:[18] Peter Watt
2008–2011: Ray Collins
2011–2018: Iain McNicol
2018–2020: Jennie Formby
2020–>>>>: David Evans


Office Holders on Wikispooks

David Evans25 September 2021
David Evans26 May 202025 September 2021
Jennie Formby20 March 20184 May 2020
Iain McNicol19 July 201123 February 2018
David Triesman24 July 200116 December 2003
Margaret McDonagh19982001
Larry Whitty19851994
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