Mr Sawyer, 51, deputy general secretary of the public service union Unison, was chosen by 18 votes to 3 from a shortlist of four for the pounds 43,000-a-year post by Labour's national executive.
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, declared himself thrilled by the result. 'We want to build the best political fighting machine in this country and with Tom Sawyer I believe . . . we have the right person in the right job at the right time,' he said.
A complex man with a dry and subtle sense of humour and a record as a highly skilled union manager, Mr Sawyer was one of Neil Kinnock's closest lieutenants. As chairman for eight years of Labour's key home policy committee, he helped engineer and then deliver the 1989 policy review which returned Labour to contention for the 1992 general election.
Less close to John Smith, he nonetheless helped devise the national policy forums which in time should diminish the confrontations at Labour's annual conference. He may take a higher public profile than his predecessor, Larry Whitty, as he made it clear he saw the job as that of a chief executive. 'I don't want to be in the mould of any previous general secretary,' Mr Sawyer said, adding he wanted to be part of the leadership team, creating 'an outstanding campaign team' and 'a sharp political strategy'.
He said he would learn from US President Bill Clinton's campaign and the success of the Swedish Labour Party's campaign. 'I am a very open and inquiring person and I want to look at new ideas.'
His appointment came as nominations closed on a near-record field of 52 for elections to Labour's Shadow Cabinet tomorrow, with a record 17 women standing for the 18 posts available.
Labour's rules demand votes for at least four women. That requirement may take Margaret Beckett, the former deputy leader, to the top of the poll with Harriet Harman, the Shadow Chief Secretary, expected to reclaim her place after the 'dumping' of votes on unlikely women candidates by MPs resentful at the quota vote left her just short of a place last year.
Resistance to Mr Blair's attempts to scrap Clause IV of Labour's constitution grew yesterday when Scottish MPs and party activists launched a campaign to retain the 70-year-old commitment to nationalisation. They said they would seek to persuade party leaders to safeguard Clause IV. Scrapping it risked weakening Labour's appeal at a time when support for the Scottish National Party was growing, they said.
Fifteen Labour MPs have signed an early day motion tabled by Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner supporting Clause IV.
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