25/02/2018 21:27 GMT | Updated 26/02/2018 12:43 GMT

Unite’s Jennie Formby Among Four Women Tipped For Labour General Secretary Post

Search for unity candidate amid intense battle over top job

David M. Benett via Getty Images

A trio of women trade unionists and a senior party official are being touted as Labour’s next general secretary, HuffPost UK has learned.

Unite’s former political director Jennie Formby (pictured above), her successor Anneliese Midgley, the GMB’s Lisa Johnson and Labour’s governance and membership director Emilie Oldknow are each being urged to apply for the post.

Current general secretary Iain McNicol surprised the party on Friday when he announced he was resigning after nearly seven years, with one source claiming it was made clear to him he ought to step aside.

McNicol’s impending departure has sparked an intense battle to succeed him, with Formby the current front runner as senior allies of Jeremy Corbyn believe she is the right person to take the helm.

Under one radical plan, her supporters want to draft a fast-tracked timetable to fill the vacancy within weeks, and believe she will be the only name on a shortlist drafted by the National Executive Committee (NEC)’s officers.

GMB external affairs chief Lisa Johnson
Anneliese Midgley, Unite's political director

HuffPost first revealed support for Formby on Friday night, but her unpopularity among some key senior figures in the party and other unions has prompted moves to find a ‘compromise’ candidate who would have a better chance of uniting the Labour movement.

Midgley, Johnson and Oldknow are seen as having the experience of working constructively across the party and unions in a non-factional way, multiple sources said.

Unite veteran Andrew Murray, who now works one day a week in the leader’s office, and the TSSA’s Sam Tarry have also been floated as possible successors. Simon Fletcher, former chief of staff to both Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone, is another new name in the frame.

Yet with men currently filling the posts of Labour leader, deputy leader, Scottish and Welsh leader and three main Metro Mayoralties, many in the party want the general secretary’s job to be filled by a woman.

Jeremy Corbyn and Emilie Oldknow

Both GMB general secretary Tim Roache and Unite’s Len McCluskey have written to their members working at Labour HQ to reassure them amid the uncertainty over the new general secretary post.

One senior MP told HuffPost: “They are determined to push through with Jennie. The reality is they think they have the votes on the NEC to do it.”

But several Shadow Cabinet ministers, MPs and union and party figures have this weekend made clear they will try to block any attempt to ‘railroad’ Formby’s candidacy.

Unison, one of the biggest unions, is unlikely to back Formby and if the GMB has similar doubts, the sheer numbers of their members means the leadership of the party will be urged to think again or risk a serious rift within the union movement.

LEON NEAL via Getty Images
Unite's Jennie Formby and Jeremy Corbyn

Even if the NEC officers group tries to draft a shortlist of one, the entire NEC has to approve the process and two separate sources claimed Formby’s backers may not have the numbers to win a vote.

The recent failure by Corbyn allies to get enough NEC votes to elect TSSA union’s Andi Fox as chair of the National Policy Forum (NPF) is cited as proof that the general secretary appointment may not be straightforward.

One senior source claimed that the heated row over the policy forum election last weekend in Leeds was driven by the fact that the chair is automatically a member of the 10-strong NEC officers group, which oversees the general secretary process. 

Supporters of activist Ann Black believe she was blocked precisely because she would not vote ‘the right way’ on a string of issues.

With Formby a member of the officers’ group, some expect her to recuse herself from its role in finding McNicol’s successor.

However, two sources claimed on Monday ahead of the meeting that Formby would still take part in the meeting.

One senior party figure said that this would be in contrast to former Amicus official Mike Griffiths who ran for general secretary in 2008, when he was also an NEC officer. He decided not to take part in NEC officers’ meetings as he felt it would be inappropriate.

PA Archive/PA Images
General secretary Iain McNicol

The ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) officers were emailed on Saturday and told to meet on Monday to decide the timetable for the appointment and formally open the vacancy for applications.

Formby is a long-standing Unite official who has a loyal group of supporters.

Midgley is a former deputy chief of staff to Jeremy Corbyn as well as a trusted Unite official and is backed by allies of the leader who believe she can best unite the unions, the leader’s office and the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Johnson is another ‘compromise’ candidate, seen as acceptable to different parts of the Labour movement.

Oldknow, who has been Executive Director for Governance, Membership and Party Services since 2012, is highly rated by staff and MPs alike and has been a key figure running the party at a senior level in recent months.