Unite official Jennie Formby has been appointed as Labour’s new general secretary, HuffPost has been told.
The party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) elected the veteran trade unionist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter after a three-hour meeting on Tuesday.
The choice of Formby, who beat former teachers union leader Christine Blower for the top post, underscores the more radical, leftward shift of Labour under Corbyn’s leadership.
She will be the first female general secretary in a generation and has already pledged to help the Labour leader “bring socialist change” to Britain.
Formby replaces Iain McNicol, who served for nearly seven years after being appointed by Ed Miliband in 2011. She won 35 votes to Blower’s two.
She is expected to address the party’s 300-plus staff at its headquarters on Wednesday.
In a statement she said: ″I am honoured to be appointed Labour’s new General Secretary.
“Labour is preparing for government and I look forward to working with Jeremy Corbyn, our party’s staff, Members of Parliament, members and affiliates to oppose the Conservatives’ destructive austerity programme inside and outside Parliament, and to win elections to build a society that works for the many, not the few.”
Corbyn said: “Her talent, experience and commitment to the Labour and Trade Union movement makes me confident she will play a crucial role in building on last year’s inspiring General Election advance and taking our party forward to victory.
“The Labour Party is on the cusp of power and we are ready for a General Election whenever it comes. We have the team, the passion and the policies to win the support of the British people, form a government and transform our society.”
Formby’s candidacy was given a huge boost after Momentum founder Jon Lansman dropped out of the race earlier this month.
Lansman was seen as damaged by remarks by one of his allies, Christine Shawcroft, who called for an end to the party’s trade union link. Labour MP George Howarth referred to the incident during the NEC meeting on Tuesday.
A former political director of Unite, Formby is a close ally of general secretary Len McCluskey, and the union has long been one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters.
Formby, who has been a staunch backer of Corbyn on the NEC since his first landslide leadership election in 2015, was appointed by 37 other members of the ruling body.
In her biography submitted to the NEC, she said: “My 90-year-old dad, who joined the Labour Party a couple of years ago, says Jeremy Corbyn is the first leader of any party in whom he has had any faith; likes in particular his honesty and his anti-war stance”.
Formby was the first candidate to declare in the race, which has been fast-tracked from the usual 10 week process to just three weeks.
The first items in her in-tray are the new party “democracy review”, fresh plans to embed “community organising” and a raft of disciplinary cases of anti-semitism, sexism and racism.
In her statement on applying for the post last month, she declared: “I stand for a tolerant and welcoming party, with no place for anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny or any form of abuse or intimidation; a party in which complaints are handled both fairly and speedily.”
There have been constant tensions between the Corbyn leadership team and McNicol and party HQ over a range of issues, including the infamous NEC decision to charge newer members £25 to take part in the 2016 leadership ballot.
Others on the left have accused the party of failing to deal quickly enough with complaints against members, or of a ‘purge’ of leftwingers.
As the NEC met, Unison chief Dave Prentis condemned a protest that took place outside the party’s HQ.
Formby’s expected arrival has not been universally welcomed by MPs or party staff, though none have publicly criticised her.
On the eve of the NEC’s meeting, a string of senior party HQ staff announced their resignations on Monday in anticipation of Formby’s appointment.
John Stolliday, ‘Director of Governance and Legal’, and Simon Jackson, the party’s Director of Policy and Research, stepped aside along with four other long-serving staffers.
Some insiders have claimed that she has clashed with other unions and party figures in the past. But one ally told HuffPost last month: “She is very insistent on things being done properly. She has been solidly behind Jeremy.
“The last thing Jeremy and John want is to be looking over his shoulder at Southside [Labour’s HQ]. They want someone with impeccable loyalty.
“Jennie is a sleeves-rolled-up, grass roots organiser, a problem solver who has fought many a battle for save jobs and improve conditions for workers.”
But Richard Angell, director of Progress, said: “The new establishment has a new leading member. Not every Labour leader gets their choice of general secretary, especially not their first choice, but Jeremy Corbyn has.
“For the sake of the Labour party and the voters that rely on us, we wish Jennie Formby well in the role. At the top of Formby’s to-do list should be implementing an independent sexual harassment and anti-bullying policy where victims can report and have their case managed by a trusted third party.
“She should ensure the outstanding cases on antisemitism are dealt with promptly and – whatever the outcome of the quasi-judicial process – make efforts to regain the confidence of the Jewish community.
“Corbyn is now the frontrunner to be prime minister – Formby’s job is to make that a reality. She will need to built an election winning team, develop a strategy to get Labour a double digit lead in the polls and a credible plan to beat the Tories who will very soon have a new leader.”
Who is Jennie Formby?
Born 12th April 1960 in London, the daughter of a naval officer, she grew up in Malta, Bath and Salisbury with her older brother and sister. She attended Bath High School then St Helen’s private boarding school in Abingdon. The Navy paid for her fees from the age of 14, while her father served overseas in Korea, Suez and Lebanon. Her mother was involved with the voluntary sector and ran a clothing bank in Salisbury and fought to keep their local village bus service intact. Formby says “perhaps my campaigning genes come from her”. In her biography submitted to the NEC, she said: “My 90 year old dad, who joined the Labour Party a couple of years ago, says Jeremy Corbyn is the first leader of any party in whom he has had any faith; likes in particular his honesty and his anti-war stance”.
Married to husband Freddie for 18 years, they have two children plus another son, now 25, who joined the family aged 14. They have four grandchildren.
Formby left school at 18 with 3 A’levels and 10 O’levels but didn’t follow the expected route of going to university as she was “fed up with institutions and already aware of inequality”. Instead, she got her first job at William Hill bookmakers in Salisbury where she joined the T&G and started organising, becoming a branch secretary. She did an accelerated secretarial course in Salisbury tech college and applied for a union job aged 19. “They wanted minimum 5 years’ experience and minimum age 25 so turned me down and instead I got a job at BOC in Southampton where I became shop steward and led the members out on national one-day strike (against an employment bill), my first ever strike.”
At the age of 20, she got another job in the T&G where she stayed for five years. She then briefly worked as a social services officer supporting people with mental health problems, including the homeless, to find housing and live independently.
Formby attended Portsmouth University to do a PPE degree in the hope of returning to the T&G as a researcher, at a time when there were very few women union officials. But after her first year exams she says she was persuaded to apply for an officer’s position in Southampton and was appointed in June 1988. She went on to take up a string of different posts covering the defence and food an drink and tobacco industries. Appointed Political Director in 2013, she led the union’s campaigns for the 2014 European elections and Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election. In 2016 she became Regional Secretary for the South East, representing 100,000 members and covering disputes ranging from Gatwick to BMW.
Here are her CV details as presented to the NEC:
Proudest moments as TU official
“Winning ground-breaking employment tribunal representing a nurse who was experiencing institutional racism, did direct representation (this was before we used lawyers), got national coverage.
“Organising the campaign to stop Kraft taking over Cadbury, real team effort, as a result got special sitting of BIS Select Committee who ordered no factory closures or redundancies for two years, also made minor changes to Takeover Regs but of course much more needed
“Under her leadership, the south east region of Unite has gone from at the bottom of the league to being the best performing in terms of organising.”
“Joined Labour aged 18 at same time as joining T&G. Held a number of positions including as Ward Organiser in local CLP. Won the Ward for Labour from the Tories for the first time in a generation. V active in GE in 1979 when Thatcher came to power, was even more active from then on.
“Led the miners’ support group in Southampton, raising funds, collecting food, generally doing all the campaigning associated with that. Was involved with anti-Apartheid and anti-fascism / anti-racism
“Involved with anti-Wapping and other union disputes (P&O, Steelworkers etc.) Active in every election, local and General.”
“ot much time but long walks with the dog, eating out with friends, spending time with family. Interested in mental health and motor neurone disease due to family history of both.”