Frances Morrell was brought up in York and educated at Queen Anne's Grammar School there and at Hull University. Much later she undertook an MA at Goldsmiths College, London University. She worked as a schoolteacher from 1960 and married Brian Morrell in 1964. In 1970 she became a Press Officer, working for the Fabian Society and the National Union of Students. This latter role brought her into contact with Tony Benn, then coming to be seen as the leader of the Labour left, and with whom she then agreed on many important issues.
In 1973 Benn invited Morrell to be his Political Adviser should Labour win the next election. She was Labour candidate for Chelmsford in the February 1974 general election, and served as a Special Adviser to Benn at the Departments of Industry and Energy from 1974 to 1979. Benn was increasingly marginalised as the Parliament went on, but Morrell worked to link him with a network of activists outside Parliament. She was unlucky in failing to be selected for several Labour seats in the 1979 general election (among them Birkenhead and Manchester Blackley).
After Labour left office, she helped to create the 'Rank and File Mobilising Committee', through which the left organised to bring changes in the party. In this capacity she was referred to cynically by some in the media: Private Eye commented "How typical of Tony Benn to have a hatchet-woman". In the run-up to the 1981 Greater London Council elections, she was chosen to fight Islington South and Finsbury and on election formed part of the left faction in support of Ken Livingstone.
However, Morrell's background as a teacher led her to spend most time on the Inner London Education Authority which came with membership of the GLC. She was chosen as Deputy Leader of the new left leadership under Bryn Davies. She became unsatisfied with his leadership, which she considered weak, and built support for a change through the GLC Women's Group; in April 1983 she challenged him and was elected as the new leader.
Under Morrell, the ILEA became concerned with promoting gender equality. The authority was severely criticized for what the right regarded as propaganda in the schools it administered. Many of the policies of the Davies leadership were continued, which included the high spending: the ILEA deliberately set an illegally high budget for 1985. Mrs Thatcher's government, which was proposing to abolish the GLC, would have wanted to abolish the ILEA as well but found it was impractical to do so. However, new legislation allowed the Government to limit the ILEA's budget, and it did so. The ILEA was helped by a bail-out from the GLC for one year.
The abolition of the GLC in 1986 also meant something had to be done to provide for future elections to the ILEA. It was first suggested that the ILEA could be made up of delegates from the 12 inner London Boroughs, but the Conservative Group on the ILEA was strongly against this policy and eventually it was decided that there would be direct elections. Morrell led Labour into the campaign, and with London hostile to the abolition of the GLC, Labour won an easy victory. Morrell was re-elected quite narrowly herself, as the SDP had a strong challenge.
Morrell lost her leadership in 1987 by 23 votes to 22, continuing a tradition of internal deselection established by both her predecessors. She had insisted that teachers who were surplus to requirements at one ILEA school should transfer to another where there was a shortfall, and threatened to dismiss those who refused. She became Secretary of the Speaker of the House of Commons' Commission on Citizenship the next year and a Senior Research Fellow at Queen Mary and Westfield College briefly in 1991-92, before becoming Executive Director of the Institute for Citizenship Studies. She was lately joint Chief Executive of ArtsInform, which tries to build relationships between schools and colleges and professional artists.
Morrell's husband Brian committed suicide in April 2009, and she herself suffered from increasingly poor health. She died on Sunday, 10 January 2010, aged 72, from cancer. She is survived by her daughter, Daisy, and brother, Peter.
Leader of the Inner London Education