Jennie Formby's resignation presents risks and opportunities for Keir Starmer

The departure of Labour's most powerful Corbynite as general secretary creates a vacancy the new leadership needs to fill carefully. 

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Jennie Formby has resigned as general secretary of the Labour Party with immediate effect, citing the election of Keir Starmer as leader as her reason. The party’s chief administrator – the most powerful official remaining from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – abruptly vacated her post this afternoon.

Formby, a former political director and south-east regional secretary of Unite, was appointed to the post in early 2018 – a move that reflected a period of Corbynite ascendancy within the party’s internal structures.

In a message to colleagues, Formby wrote: “When I applied for the role of general secretary in 2018 it was because I wanted to support Jeremy Corbyn, who inspired so many people to get involved in politics with his message of hope, equality and peace.

“It has been a huge privilege to be general secretary of the largest political party in Europe for the last two years, but now we have a new leadership team it is the right time to step down.

“I would like to thank Jeremy, our members and my staff colleagues who have given me so much support during what has been a very challenging period, in particular when I was suffering from ill health.” Formby was diagnosed with breast cancer last year but is now in remission.

To thanks from Starmer and Angela Rayner, Formby added: “I wish Keir and Angela the very best of luck in taking the party forward and leading Labour to victory at the next general election.” 

Her survival under a Starmer leadership was always unlikely. Briefings from allies in the weeks before his victory suggested she would be asked to resign in the event that he won.

By resigning not even a month after Starmer’s election, Formby bequeaths Starmer a luxury that Corbyn never enjoyed – the chance to appoint a general secretary aligned with his politics and his vision for internal reform of the party. Iain McNicol, a committed Corbynsceptic, remained in post for two-and-a-half years after the 2015 Labour leadership election.

But that is not to say that Starmer will inevitably make the most of his opportunity. The selection of Formby’s successor is not within the leader’s gift – though he will doubtless have a favoured candidate – but that of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee.

The resignation of Tim Roache as general secretary of the GMB has left Labour’s third largest affiliate without political leadership at a crucial juncture, and could yet complicate the path of the union’s external affairs director, Lisa Johnson – frequently spoken of as a leading candidate for Formby’s job – to Southside.

More pertinently, the vacuum at the top of the GMB could narrow one of Starmer’s multiple paths to the NEC majority he will need to see his favoured candidate appointed. Just who that candidate is will be a matter of fierce debate between the unions and Team Starmer. Of the figures from the big four unions, Unite’s political director, Anneliese Midgeley – a former aide to Corbyn and Ken Livingstone who is well liked across the Parliamentary Labour Party – is considered a plausible unity candidate.

As well as the GMB’s Johnson, Unison’s Emilie Oldknow – in effect McNicol’s deputy during his time as general secretary – has also been talked up in the past, though the fallout from the leaked report into alleged factionalism and handling of anti-Semitism cases at Southside is widely considered to have reduced her stock. 

Nor is it implausible that Starmer, who has made much of his experience in running and reforming a large organisation in the Crown Prosecution Service, might look to business or the civil service for a fresh outsider. Such an appointment would, however, be more difficult to win NEC approval for.

In any case, Formby’s successor will have to contend with a groaning and possibly very expensive in-tray: as well as legal action in the wake of the leaked report, Labour faces having to rearrange or cancel its September conference. Starmer has also made clear that reform of the party’s disciplinary procedures is a priority. Events have assured those tasks will not only be demanding, but far more politically charged.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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