Frances Morrell: Politician and activist who worked with Tony Benn and led the Inner London Education Authority

Frances Morrell was a visionary politician who has left a lasting legacy. She was a bright star in an increasingly bland political universe. In every way a political heavyweight and intellectual, she was also capable of enormous warmth and humour. She was fun to be with and will be sadly missed.

Born Frances Galleway, and brought up in York before going to Hull University, she worked as a schoolteacher from 1960 and married Brian Morrell in 1964. In 1970 she became a press officer 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 agreed on many important issues.

In 1973 Benn invited Frances 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. She was unlucky in not being selected for several Labour seats in the 1979 general election (among them Birkenhead and Manchester Blackley).

Morrell was one of the key figures in the Labour Party in the 1970s and '80s, helping move the party in the direction of greater accountability to its membership. She was a prominent member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), which led to the process of reselection of MPs being introduced, often against bitter opposition. As a committed feminist she was also a key driving force in the Women's Action Committee (WAC), which played a decisive role in integrating feminism into the broad left, and she was central in beating a path that many other women have been able to follow into Parliament, into the Cabinet and into many other areas of business, public and community life. The huge influx of women into Parliament at the 1997 general election was in no small measure due to the pioneering work of Morrell and her sisters in WAC.

She was an intellectual engaged in the rough old world of politics – not always a happy union – capable of great strategic insight, linked to a formidable organising talent. That is why she was so widely respected and feared in equal measure. Her ability to translate often complex ideas into practical outcomes stemmed from an intensity of purpose and attention to detail, that was and is still rare quality. At her best she was simply unstoppable.

Morrell was elected to the Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority to represent Islington South & Finsbury in May 1981. Initially she became the chair of the schools committee, before going on in 1983 to become the Leader of ILEA, a post she held with distinction until 1987. As leader she was responsible for sponsoring a number of groundbreaking reports into the education system in London.

Of her work, it can be said that what was at the time the exception is now enshrined in practice. Without her energy, drive and determination, and her work in particular on race, sex and class, the world of education would today be a less equal place. No part of the system was left untouched: schools, colleges, nurseries, and polytechnics were all required to change their governing bodies to include more women, people from ethnic minorities and with disabilities. As a mother she was passionate about the right of parents to be able to lift the curtain of the often secret world of education, which is why she strongly advocated the publication of school results. She was responsible for the development of a sixth form centre in Islington, of which she was particularly proud.

She was also a member of the GLC Arts & Recreation Committee throughout the 1981-86 administration, taking part in the discussions that led to the opening up of the South Bank Arts Centre – one of the great legacies of the GLC. The committee was a vehicle for her passion for art and literature, and also, at times, her sense of fun. She was also responsible for the securing of funding for an education centre at Sadler's Wells.

After the abolition of ILEA, she made a conscious decision to step back from direct involvement in politics, but she remained active in other important areas of civic life. From 1989-94 she directed the Speakers Citizenship programme – an initiative of the then Speaker of the House of Commons, the Bernard Weatherill – which led to the establishment of the Institute of Citizenship Studies. From 1995 to 1999 she was Director of Studies at the European Citizenship Programme funded by the European Commission.

From 1997 to 2009 she was joint chief executive, with Linda Payne, of Arts Inform, established by Arts Council London to complement their education and training programme by building relationships between schools and colleges and professionals in the creative and cultural industries. Her leadership helped it to occupy a unique position in the arts and education field, developing work-related learning opportunities for students within the arts industries. Her rigour and creative energy ensured that it developed projects across diverse art forms, from architecture to opera. The needs of students were paramount, as were opportunities to develop teachers' skills and confidence through working with creative artists.

She was instrumental in developing an enduring partnership between Arts Inform and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), as part of its educational outreach programme, Designs on Britain, which later became Architects in Residence. This initiative aimed to involve young people in the regeneration of their communities and embed architecture in the curriculum. In 2005 she was made an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA.

George Nicholson and Linda Payne

Frances Morrell worked with me as my political advisor for many years and she was a very talented person, writes Tony Benn. Her colleague was Francis Cripps, a very distinguished economist, and they were my eyes and ears in the department.

We discussed all the problems that I had to face and although they had absolutely no executive authority in dealing with civil servants, they were a link with outside experts and with my ministerial colleagues in other departments, as well as Labour MPs generally.

Being a minister can be a very lonely position and having Frances and Francis made it possible to deal with the mass of material that arrived on my desk. We became close colleagues and good friends, and I was very sad, when in 1979, our work together ended after the Conservative victory under Margaret Thatcher. Later, Frances was elected to the Inner London Education Authority and became its leader and subsequently worked with Jack Weatherill, the speaker of the House of Commons, on his Citizenship council.

Frances's husband died last summer and I think that his death must have contributed enormously to her own distress. She was a very able public servant, deeply committed to the work we were doing, and her death deprives the Labour movement of a distinguished supporter.

Frances Maine Galleway, politician: born 28 December 1937; Special Adviser to Tony Benn, as Secretary of State for Industry, then as Secretary of State for Energy, 1974–79; Deputy Leader, 1981–83, Leader, 1983–87, Independent London Education Authority; Member for Islington South and Finsbury, Greater London Council, 1981–86; Executive, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, 1979–; Co-Founder, Labour Co-ordinating Committee, 1978; married 1964 Brian Morrell (died 2009; one daughter); died 10 January 2010.