Labour General Secretary – the agony of choice

Jon Lansman should let Jennie Formby have a clear run at a crucial Labour Party job, argues Andy Stowe.

Corbyn supporting members were pleased when Iain McNicol announced in late February that he’d be resigning as Labour Party General Secretary (GS). He was the functionary who tried to roll back the Corbynista tide by preventing socialists from joining and who, as Private Eye reported, was complicit in an attempted election night coup against the leadership on behalf of the party’s right.

Left-wingers are now faced with the choice of platonically backing one of two left candidates. It’s an appointed role, so there isn’t a vote by members, but it is crucial to the democratic running of the party and the incumbent should share the leadership’s general approach. That’s why McNicol, had to go, albeit much later than many of us would have preferred.

According to the job description:

“The General Secretary has responsibility for giving leadership and direction towards the strategic and operational management of the Labour Party organisation and the implementation of its aims and objectives at national, regional and local levels as laid down by the annual conference and the National Executive Committee.”

Momentum members aren’t often encouraged by the national organisation to put themselves forward for important jobs. Their role is mainly to respond to requests to volunteer to do things. So it was a little bit of a surprise for many when they received an email asking them to consider applying for the GS post.

There are, at the time of writing, two candidates for the job.

Jennie Formby is the regional secretary for the union Unite in the South East of England. She was the subject of a feature on BBC radio in which a baroness explained why she’d be a wrong and divisive person for the job, mainly on account of having been on the left of the labour movement since she was a young adult.

Since the announcement that she is standing,  Formby has been the target of a sustained attack by the Israel lobby. “Labour Against Antisemitism” has been tweeting obsessively about her, alleging that she was forced to stand down as political director of Unite because she “crossed the line” in her support for Palestinian rights and BDS. Unite has issued a statement denouncing these scurrilous attacks and defending her. Lansman is increasingly being seen as the Israel lobby’s best option, which presumably is why Wes Streeting has endorsed him.

John McDonnell tweeted his support for Formby on March 1st, a clear indication of the leadership’s preference as we must assume that he isn’t going to disagree with Jeremy Corbyn on such a vital choice. Other left MP’s have been quick to add their support.

The other candidate is Jon Lansman, founder and effectively CEO of Momentum. The organisation has been an essential reason for the success of the Corbyn project and every Labour Party member should thank Lansman for his role in creating it. However, Lansman is not a popular choice amongst those on the Labour left for the GS position and he should not stand for it. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy AGM on March 3 called on him to stand down and he should do so.

The first reason is that when a man and a woman with broadly similar politics and experience both want to use the same high profile position to put forward their political views, the man should step aside. In the statement announcing his candidacy Lansman writes “I would especially like to encourage more women to apply. We’ve only ever had one female general secretary…” Standing against a woman whom everyone agrees is perfectly qualified makes that aspiration seem vacuous.

The second reason is that Lansman has shown himself to be so focused on building the Momentum machine that he had demonstrated a complete disregard for democracy. No ordinary Momentum member has any input into any of its decision-making processes. There is a full-time staff and political leadership is given by Lansman and a tight inner circle. Local groups have no relationship with the national organisation and Labour lacks an effective way of allowing the rank and file left to communicate with each other.

The third reason is that Lansman was elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee very recently. If his post were to fall vacant it would be filled by Eddie Izzard, a strong supporter of the party’s right. It would be a mistake to let that happen.

Finally, as well as declaring his own candidacy, Lansman is also arguing that Labour’s General Secretary should be elected by the membership. This may seem like an idea that the left should support. In fact, it would create a serious problem. The membership elects the leader and the NEC to carry through party policy. Having an elected GS would give the post holder more power than they should have and create confused legitimacy if they acted in a way the NEC did not support.

It’s particularly ironical to be in this situation when the Democracy Review gives the left the opportunity to get rid of the National Policy Forum, a body created by the right to act as an alternative centre of power to the NEC.

The left is faced with a good problem. Two serious candidates for the GS job are strong Corbyn supporters. That’s a fact to be celebrated and Jon Lansman needs to be congratulated for his work in getting us here, but he must step aside in favour of Jennie Formby.







  1. I think we need to add to McNicol’s misdeeds the attmept to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper in the 2016 re-election and his acceptance of the “criticism of Israel and zionism = antisemitism” trope that has led to expulsions and immense cost in legal fees etc. His parting shot was to extend the suspension of Ken Livingstone.

    The LP leadership has allowed this trope to become a meme: for example, several times I have heard on the radio and TV comedians refer to “labour antisemitism” when they are trying to find something to “balance” a criticism of the Tories. And of course, the mainstream press accept it as a given. John Lansman is no better on this issue, having promoted the removal of Jackie Walker from Momentum steering committee and also piled in against Livingstone as well.

  2. I agree with the call for Jon Landsman to step aside in favour of Jenny Formby for the reasons outlined. I will propose a motion along these lines at Unite’s next local government RISC meeting.

  3. Nick, don’t you mean RISK? RISC denotes Reduced Instruction Set Computer and is also the name of an operating system that runs only on ARM processors (which are RISC chips).

    • David in Unite Regional Industrial Sector committees are the backbone of the lay structure of the union. I today proposed support for Formby at our local gov RISC which was not supports- comrades from the SP were unable to set aside their sectarianism and hostility to their former comrade and won the vote.

  4. I am pleased to learn that Jon Lansman has now stepped down his bid and with the support of the GMB union it would seem Jennie Formby is almost certain to be selected as General Secretary.

  5. Nick, thanks for elucidation. But was it just me that didn’t know that RISC denoted Regional Industrial Sector Committee? Entering RISC in a search engine, gave Reduced Instruction Set Computer as the first entry followed by several other usages, but no mention of your usage on the first 2 pages of entries. In fact most of the usages were to do with Reduced Instruction Set Computer.
    This is not just a pedantic point as uncommon acronyms or uncommon usages of an acronym, if not explained, will limit the ‘audience’.

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