General Secretary of the Labour Party

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. When there is a vacancy the National Executive Committee selects a provisional replacement, subject to approval at the subsequent party conference.

General Secretary of the Labour Party
Jennie Formby, 2016 Labour Party Conference (cropped)
Jennie Formby

since April 2018
Labour Party
First holderRamsay MacDonald
WebsiteLabour Party

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.[1]

As the Labour Party is an unincorporated association without a separate legal personality,[2] the General Secretary represents the party on behalf of the other members of the Labour Party in any legal matters or actions.[3][4]


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 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 parliamentary party, 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, Jimmy 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 Len 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 who would be unlikely to continue to renew and reinvigorate the Party. The Party lost 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 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 communication 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 1997, 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. Her handling of the candidate selection for the 2000 London mayoral election badly damaged her reputation. However her formidable organisational skills contributed to a second landslide in 2001. 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 "for legal and financial reasons". 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.[4][5][6] Ray Collins was appointed in 2008, and was succeeded by Iain McNicol in 2011. McNicol resigned for the post in early 2018, citing a desire to "pursue new challenges".[7] On 20 March 2018, Jennie Formby was appointed as the General Secretary effective from April 2018.[8][9]

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)[10]
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: Peter Watt[11]
2008–2011: Ray Collins
2011–2018: Iain McNicol
2018–present: Jennie Formby


  • A Short History of the Labour Party, Henry Pelling, 2005, ISBN 1-4039-9313-0


  1. ^ Labour Party The Statement of Accounts for 2004 Archived February 17, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ Athelstane Aamodt (17 September 2015). "Unincorporated associations and elections". Local Government Lawyer. Retrieved 21 September 2015.
  3. ^ "Watt (formerly Carter) (sued on his own on behalf of the other members of the Labour Party) (Respondent) v. Ahsan (Appellant)". The Lords of Appeal. House of Lords. 16–18 July 2007. [2007] UKHL 51. Retrieved 2 October 2013.
  4. ^ a b Hencke, David (29 May 2008). "Labour cash crisis could bankrupt party leaders". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 August 2018.
  5. ^ Hélène Mulholland (2 May 2008). "Labour's general secretary quits before he begins". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
  6. ^ Erika Brown Ekiel (6 March 2014). "David Pitt-Watson: Entrepreneurship Is a Basic Freedom". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  7. ^ Kentish, Benjamin (23 February 2018). "Labour's general secretary Iain McNicol resigns". The Independent. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
  8. ^ Schofield, Kevin (20 March 2018). "Jennie Formby appointed Labour general secretary in huge boost for Jeremy Corbyn". PoliticsHome. Retrieved 27 March 2018.
  9. ^ Waugh, Paul (28 March 2018). "Jeremy Corbyn Plans In-House Lawyer In Anti-Semitism Crackdown On 70 Unresolved Claims Of Abuse". Huffington Post. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  10. ^ Lucy Middleton, Women in the Labour Movement: The British Experience, pp.157, 203
  11. ^ "Labour boss quits over donations". BBC News. BBC. 27 November 2007. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
Andrew Kirton

Andrew Kirton (born c.1981) is a New Zealand politician who was the General Secretary of the New Zealand Labour Party. He was appointed on 15 January 2016 and took office in April, succeeding Tim Barnett.

Brendan Halligan

Brendan Halligan (born 5 July 1936) is an Irish economist and former politician. He is currently chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), a think tank on European and international affairs. He is also a Board Member of Mainstream Renewable Energy. At various times he has been General Secretary of the Labour Party, a Teachta Dála (TD), and a Member of the European Parliament (MEP).

Halligan was born in Dublin in 1936. He was educated at St James's Christian Brothers School and Dublin Institute of Technology, Dublin, he graduated with a master's degree from University College Dublin in 1964. Following an early career as an economist, working with the Irish Sugar Company until 1967, he became involved in politics. In that year, he became General Secretary of the Labour Party.

The party leader, Brendan Corish, relied on Halligan's intellectual and political skills in his new role. Under Halligan, the party underwent an energetic reorganisation. New structures and policies were put in place, coinciding with the party's leftward policy shift and an acute anti-coalition stance. He strongly supported both approaches, but was instrumental in securing the party's eventual, somewhat unwilling, reversal of its anti-coalition stance after its disappointing result in the 1969 general election. The 1973 general election resulted in a Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition government coming to power.

Halligan was appointed to Seanad Éireann in 1973; three years later, he won a by-election in Dublin South-West, and thus became a TD. After boundary changes, he stood in the new Dublin Finglas at the 1977 general election, but was not elected. Halligan stood again in the revived Dublin North-West constituency at the 1981 and November 1982 general elections, but again was not elected.He continued to serve as General Secretary of the party until 1980, and was appointed a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1983 until 1984, replacing Frank Cluskey, where he specialised in economic affairs and energy policy.In 1980, Halligan set up CIPA, his own public affairs consultancy based in Dublin, and became a lecturer in Economics at the University of Limerick. In the same year he founded the Institute of European Affairs (IEA), which later became the IIEA; he has had a strong commitment to European affairs since the 1960s. In 1985, he was appointed as Chairman of Bórd na Móna, the Irish Peat Development Authority, a position he held for ten years. He was Director of CIPA until 2014.

Resulting from his keen interest and experience in energy policy and renewable energy, Halligan served as Chair of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland from 2007 until 2014. He is currently Chair of the IIEA, and he is also a Board Member of Mainstream Renewable Energy.

Christopher Lennie, Baron Lennie

Christopher John Lennie (Chris Lennie) (born 22 February 1953) is a British politician. He has been deputy general secretary of the Labour Party. Lennie was appointed life peer as Baron Lennie, of Longsands Tynemouth in the County of Tyne and Wear, on 22 September 2014.

Gwyn Morgan (civil servant)

John Gwynfryn "Gwyn" Morgan OBE (16 February 1934 – 21 April 2010) was a British Labour Party official and EU civil servant.

Morgan was born in Cwmdare, Wales, the son of a coal miner. He attended Aberdare Boys Grammar School before going on to the University College Wales, Aberystwyth, where he studied Classics. He also played Second XI Championship cricket for Glamorgan. From 1960 to 1962, Morgan was president of the National Union of Students. He was also director-general of the International Student Conference, an anti-communist breakaway from the International Union of Students.Morgan served as head of the Labour Party's Overseas Department from 1965 to 1969, succeeding David Ennals. He was then assistant general secretary to Harry Nicholas from 1969 to 1972. Morgan was groomed to succeed Nicholas as General Secretary of the Labour Party, but when Nicholas retired the National Executive Committee instead narrowly selected Ron Hayward. The committee was deadlocked for three consecutive ballots, with the left-leaning Hayward finally winning on the casting vote of chairman Tony Benn.In 1973, Morgan left the British political scene to go and work for the European Commission. Until 1975, he was chief of staff to George Thomson, the European Commissioner for Regional Policy. Morgan later held various EU administrative and diplomatic positions, and helped create the European Development Fund. He was prominent in the "Yes" campaign for the 1975 EEC membership referendum, and was also on the bureau of the Socialist International. In his personal life, Morgan was a director of London Welsh RFC. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1999.

Harry Nicholas

Sir Herbert Richard Nicholas OBE (13 March 1905 – 15 April 1997) was a trade unionist and political organiser.

Born in Bristol, Nicholas worked for the Port of Bristol Authority until 1936, when he took a full-time post in the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). He moved to London to become National Officer in 1940, and in 1956 rose to become Assistant General Secretary. In the same year, he was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, and from 1960 to 1964 he was the party treasurer, appointed in order to maximise trade union donations.Frank Cousins, General Secretary of the TGWU, served as Minister of Technology from 1964 to 1966, and during this period, Nicholas became Acting General Secretary, also serving on the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. In 1967, he returned to the Labour NEC. He took early retirement from the union in 1968 to become General Secretary of the Labour Party, having been offered the post by Harold Wilson after several other candidates refused the position.Nicholas was criticised after Labour lost the 1970 general election, and he stood down in 1972.

Iain McNicol

Iain Mackenzie McNicol, Baron McNicol of West Kilbride (born 17 August 1969) is a British Labour politician and trade unionist. From 2011 to 2018 he was General Secretary of the Labour Party, the most senior employee of the Labour Party. Previously he was National Political Officer of the GMB Union, and has a long history of organising in both the Labour Party and the trade union movement.

James Middleton (political organiser)

James Smith Middleton (12 March 1878 - 18 November 1962), known as Jim Middleton, was a journalist and political organiser best known for serving as the General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Born in Clarborough, Nottinghamshire, Middleton worked for a printer, then as a journalist on his father's labour movement journal, the Workington Star. He joined the Young People's Society of Christian Endeavour and the Independent Labour Party, then served in prominent roles on Workington Trades Council and the local Labour Representation Committee. While there, he met and married Mary Muir, who was working locally as a domestic servant.In 1902, Middleton moved to work on the Harringay Mercury, and became the first Assistant Secretary of the Labour Party. He remained in this role for many years, a close supporter of Ramsay MacDonald. He opposed World War I, founding the War Emergency Workers' National Committee, and was initially enthusiastic about the October Revolution.Middleton remained with the Labour Party in 1931 when MacDonald left to form the National Labour Organisation, although he stated that he was in awe at MacDonald's heroism over this move. In 1935, he succeeded Arthur Henderson and General Secretary of the party. In this role, he opposed proposals to form a Popular Front and worked to sideline all critics of the official party line. However, he increasingly became seen as ineffective, and retired in 1944.In 1936, Middleton married Lucy Cox. He acted as her election agent from the 1945 general election, when she was the successful Labour candidate in Plymouth Sutton, until her last contest in 1955. In retirement, Middleton focussed on writing biographical sketches and obituaries of early Labour Party figures.The Labour History Archive and Study Centre at the People's History Museum in Manchester has the papers of the War Emergency Workers' National Committee in their collection, as well as Middleton's General Secretary papers.

Jennie Formby

Jennie Formby (née Sandle, born 12 April 1960) is a British trade unionist and politician. She is the current General Secretary of the Labour Party, having succeeded Iain McNicol in April 2018. Previously, she was political director and south-east England regional secretary for Unite the Union.

Jim Mortimer

James Edward Mortimer (12 January 1921 – 23 April 2013) was a British trade unionist and the Labour Party General Secretary between 1982 and 1985.

Leonard Williams (politician)

Sir Arthur Leonard Williams (22 January 1904 – 27 December 1972) was a British politician who was General Secretary of the Labour Party during the 1960s.Born in Liverpool in 1904, he began working on the steam engines of the railway as a boy, doing the dirty jobs of cleaning out the ashes and the boilers on the engines. He became involved in the union movement after World War I, rising through various positions to attain the position of General Secretary of the British Labour Party. After retiring from that post he was knighted and appointed Governor-General of Mauritius in 1968 and served in that capacity until his death. He was also involved in the Scout movement.

He was married to Margaret Alma I. S. Wiggins (born Oxton, England 1904). There were no children of the marriage.

Lormesh Bundhoo

Lormesh Bundhoo is a Mauritian politician. On February 23, 2011 he was elected general secretary of the Labour Party.He was elected to parliament in 1995, 2005 and 2010. He served as junior minister in the Prime Minister's Office between 1998 and 2000, and as Minister of Environment between September 2008 and May 2010.

Luke Duffy

Luke Joseph Duffy (1890 – 3 August 1961) was an Irish trades unionist and Labour Party politician, who served for five years as a Senator.

Born in Gurteen, County Sligo in 1890, Duffy's first job was as a draper's apprentice in Moon's of Galway. By 1910, he was an active member of the local branch of the Irish Drapers' Assistants Association (IDAA), and he was elected branch secretary in 1911. In the following years, he was vice-president and trustee of the Trades Council, secretary of the Volunteers and of the Galway City Gaelic Athletic Association, and active in the Irish National Foresters. In 1914, he chaired the IDAA's annual conference in Dublin. Sacked from Moon's for union activity in 1916, he was appointed Munster organiser of the IDAA. A few years later, he was elected as general secretary of the renamed Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks. In 1933, he became general secretary of the Irish Labour Party.

In 1944, he was elected by the Industrial and Commercial Panel as a member of the 5th Seanad. He was re-elected in 1948 to the 6th Seanad, but resigned when appointed to the board of the newly established Industrial Development Authority for Industry and Commerce (IDAIC), by Daniel Morrissey, Minister for Industry and Commerce. This appointment was for a term of five years through 25 May 1954. He resigned from the Senate to accept this appointment and also relinquished his position as General Secretary of the Labour Party.

In his appointment to the IDAIC Duffy worked at developing strategies that would ultimately lead to attracting direct foreign investment into Ireland. The IDAIC was placed on statutory footing in 1950. Duffy spent the rest of his career in advancing the aims and objectives of the IDAIC.

Duffy died on 3 August 1961, in Dún Laoghaire, at 71 years of age.

Margaret McDonagh, Baroness McDonagh

Margaret Josephine McDonagh, Baroness McDonagh (born 26 June 1961) is a British Labour Party politician and was General Secretary of the Labour Party from 1998 to 2001. She now works as a management consultant.McDonagh was part of the New Labour leadership inner-circle for the 1997 general election campaign and was one of the inner-core deciding the official party position on specific issues.In 1998, McDonagh became Labour's first female general secretary, after serving as deputy general secretary the previous year. She was not always popular with the grassroots and parts of the Parliamentary Party due to her perceived 'control-freakery'. She was considered to have badly mishandled the party's London mayoral candidate selection process, which resulted in Ken Livingstone winning the election as an independent candidate, leaving the official Labour candidate Frank Dobson in third place, with subsequent disaffection amonsget the party members. McDonagh later apologised for the mayoral electoral loss. Her organisational skills came to the fore however in the delivery of a second landslide victory at the 2001 general election. She was also criticised for accepting, without consultation, a £100,000 donation from Daily Express an adult magazine publisher Richard Desmond, and still counting as party members those in arrears of up to 15 months to delay news of declining membership emerging.After stepping down from the position of General Secretary following the 2001 general election, McDonagh took a short Harvard University business course and became General Manager of Express Newspapers. She has been a non-executive director of Standard Life, TBI plc and CareCapital Group plc. She is Chair of the Standard Life Charitable Trust.She was created a life peer on 24 June 2004 taking the title Baroness McDonagh, of Mitcham and of Morden in the London Borough of Merton.In 2013 Margaret McDonagh was appointed chair of the Smart Meter Central Delivery Body, which then became Smart Energy GB, an independent organisation that aims to inform consumers about smart meters and their national rollout across Great Britain.Her sister is Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden.

Norah Phillips, Baroness Phillips

Norah Mary Phillips, Baroness Phillips, JP (née Lusher; 12 August 1910 – 14 August 1992) was a British Labour politician.

Phillips was educated at Hampton Training College as a teacher. She became active in her local Fulham Labour Party and in 1930 married fellow Fulham activist Morgan Phillips, a former miner and later the General Secretary of the Labour Party 1944–1961. They had a son and a daughter, Gwyneth Dunwoody, who became a long-serving Labour Member of Parliament.

Phillips was a long-serving London magistrate and co-founder of the National Association of Women's Clubs (1935). She was made a life peer on 21 December 1964 as Baroness Phillips, of Fulham in the County of Greater London and was the first female government whip in the House of Lords, as Baroness-in-Waiting 1965–70.

She championed consumer issues and in 1965 founded the Housewives Trust to help shoppers obtain better value for money. In 1977 she became director of the Association for the Prevention of Theft in Shops.She served as Lord Lieutenant of Greater London from 1978–85.

Organisation of the Scottish Labour Party

The Organisation of the Scottish Labour Party is a body established under the national rules of the UK Labour Party.

Peter Watt

Peter Martin Watt (born 20 July 1969) was the General Secretary of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom from January 2006 until he resigned in November 2007 as a result of the Donorgate affair. Watt was then a member of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) Executive Board. He is now working for Hammersmith council directing all services relating to children.

Ray Collins, Baron Collins of Highbury

Ray Edward Harry Collins, Baron Collins of Highbury (born 21 December 1954) is a British life peer and trade unionist who was General Secretary of the Labour Party between 2008 and 2011.

Ron Hayward

Ronald George Hayward, (27 June 1917 – 22 March 1996), was a leading activist in the British Labour Party.

Born near Chipping Sodbury in Gloucestershire, Hayward served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. At the end of the war, he became the Labour Party's secretary and agent in Banbury. In 1949 he moved to Kent, where he began a friendship with local MP Arthur Bottomley. The following year, Bottomley ensured his appointed as the party's London assistant regional organiser, and in 1959 he became organiser for the Southern region. He served in this role until 1969, when he became a National Agent. In 1972, he narrowly defeated Gwyn Morgan to become General Secretary of the Labour Party.As General Secretary, Hayward opposed entry to the Common Market and supported unilateral nuclear disarmament. He strongly supported the Presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile, and after its overthrow became friends with Hortensia Bussi, Allende's former wife. Privately, he was very critical of the Labour Party leadership's lack of response to the Chilean Coup. In the 1980s he opposed the Militant Tendency, but was reluctant to expel its supporters from the party. He was fiercely opposed to the Gang of Four, who led the split which formed the Social Democratic Party.In 1982, Hayward retired from his Labour Party positions.

Tom Sawyer, Baron Sawyer

Lawrence Sawyer, Baron Sawyer (born 12 May 1943), known as Tom Sawyer, is a British trade unionist and Labour Party politician. He was General Secretary of the Labour Party from 1994 to 1998.

Sawyer was educated at Dodmire School, Eastbourne Comprehensive School and Darlington Technical College.

After his education, Sawyer worked in engineering, before moving into trade unionism. He became a National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) Officer in 1971, becoming their Northern Regional Officer in 1975.

In 1981, he was made Deputy General Secretary of NUPE and served through its merger to become UNISON until 1994. In this role he served as a National Executive Committee Member of the Labour Party between 1981 and 1994 and was made Chair of the Party in 1991.

In 1994, Sawyer became General Secretary of the Labour Party and led the Party successfully into the 1997 General Election. He was a moderniser who helped bring about the New Labour era. He stood down at the 1998 Party Conference and was created a Life Peer as Baron Sawyer, of Darlington in the County of Durham on 4 August 1998. He is now a director of several companies and public sector bodies.

In November 2004, it was announced that Lord Sawyer would become the next chancellor of the University of Teesside, replacing former Conservative MP and member of the European Commission, Leon Brittan.

The Labour History Archive and Study Centre at the People's History Museum in Manchester holds the papers of Sawyer, which range from 1985 to 1998.

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