Labour party general secretary: some tips for hopeful applicants

by Peter Watt

Last week the party finally decided to set a timetable for the selection of a new general secretary. Not before time. Ray Collins has been a good general secretary. But once he had announced his departure and taken his seat in the Lords the timetable should have been set. The delay will, inevitably, have been destabilising for the party organisation.

To hold office as the general secretary of the party that created the NHS, established a minimum wage, legislated for civil partnerships and created the open university is a tremendous responsibility and enormous privilege. It is also incredibly hard and demanding work.

So I thought, having been there, that I’d try and give some inside tips to those thinking of applying.

My first tip is to be prepared to sacrifice any semblance of work-life balance. You will be in demand seven days a week, often for 16 hours a day.  It’s one of those jobs where if someone wants to speak to you, then they want to speak to you right now. If you are unavailable it will be seen as a personal snub. It doesn’t matter why you were unavailable. You weren’t available when they wanted you; and people with egos remember snubs.

I took calls from senior party figures on my wedding day, at 4.30 in the morning and was once tracked down at a country pub with no mobile phone reception. At first it is fun, it helps nurse your own ego, as you feel that you are in demand. You are an important person doing an important job. But that soon wears off and it becomes a slog – particularly for your family who generally come second to the party.

The difficult thing is that you don’t actually have a constituency as such, either literally like an MP or metaphorically as in a trade union general secretary. You don’t have a specialism like a (shadow) minister or favoured pollster or strategist. The result is that everyone seems to think that they are more important and work harder than you. You have a lot of responsibility and little direct ability to influence. So, if you want to get things done, you need to keep as many of those “more important people” on your side as possible.

Which leads to my second tip: it can be pretty lonely. You will be in demand; everyone will want to meet you and give you their view. But few will actually be your friend. Casual conversations will become tricky, as what you say can become used against you. The long hours make any social life hard to schedule. Quickly work out who the small number of very close and trusted friends are.  Ideally keep some contacts up from outside the party. And do not neglect your family.

The third tip is about the leader and deputy leader’s offices. Get to know them well, meet them regularly and as far as possible pursue the same goals. Never forget that they, not you, have the ear of the leader and deputy leader. They may be lower in the food chain than you on the organisation chart – but don’t be fooled. At the same time, make sure that you have a slot, on your own, with the leader and deputy leader as often as you can. Get the dates agreed early and make sure that they are stuck to.

My fourth tip is about the NEC. Cards on the table: the NEC can be a real pain. You will expend an awful lot of energy preparing for, and attending, seemingly endless and tortuous meetings and sub-committees. Decision-making is difficult, and outcomes are more often than not based on the politics of the various stakeholder groups rather than the merits of the case. But, and it is a big but, the NEC is your employer and rightly deserves your respect. If NEC members are treated with respect then they will be supportive – and when the chips are down you need their support. There is also often a great deal of wisdom around the table. Warnings of problems to come, expressed by the NEC, should be listened to.

My fifth tip is the Labour party staff. They are brilliant. Your first responsibility is to them. They work incredibly hard for the party and often get unfairly criticised. Defend them, stick up for them and protect them. They deserve it, and no one else will do it.

My sixth tip is to learn to live with unpopularity. The old cliché – that you can’t please everyone – is certainly true for the general secretary. Virtually every decision that you take will irritate or anger someone, and they won’t mind telling people. Sometimes a decision may be delegated. But it doesn’t matter, as you will get attacked just the same. It can be quite disconcerting the first time you read a damning article condemning something that you have said or done and it comes as news to you. My favourite was being condemned as “liar of the week” in the Sun for an email to members that they took exception to. I had been on holiday when it had been sent.

And my final tip is to start planning your exit the moment you get the job. It will be your last job in the party’s employ. Being the ex-general secretary wears pretty thin pretty quickly. It is worth remembering that outside the very small world of party politics, few people will know who you are or even what the general secretary of the Labour party does. You need something to move to, that defines what you are, post the job. And, by the way, if you are looking for longevity – the omens from the last 20 years are not good.

Whoever gets the post, I wish them well. It really is a fantastic job.  But you must be mad to want it.

Peter Watt was the fourteenth general secretary of the Labour party.

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3 Responses to “Labour party general secretary: some tips for hopeful applicants”

  1. John Lilburne says:

    Point eight remember to keep a diary and publish your autobiography. Good timing to do this is when the leader and party are suffering in the polls which will ensure ££££. Also don’t forget to sell extracts to right wing press.

  2. iain ker says:

    Also don’t forget to sell extracts to right wing press.


    No, please don’t do this.

    Don’t want them stinking up my copy of the Daily Mail thanks.

  3. Keith says:

    Point eight should read hope you have a decent leader who will not put himself above others (including the party general secretary) in pursuit of power. After the Blair Brown years, the party needs a leader who genuinely cares about the party and not themselves.

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