This man poses the greatest threat to a Labour government

Will Sadler
Oct 6, 2019 · 6 min read
Seumas Milne. Credit: ‘Clara’. Used under Creative Commons licence

In the wake of failed attempts by the leader’s inner circle to dispose of the Labour Party’s deputy leader: Tom Watson, the party’s divisive former head of communications tweeted:

“Hard to escape the conclusion that the posh boy revolutionaries and their ally LenKarie [sic] really don’t care if UK Labour win an election or not, provided they can control whatever remains of the Labour Party when the worst government in history is re-elected with their help”.

Whilst I agree with Alistair Campbell’s assertion that there are those on the left who prioritise taking control of the Labour Party machine over winning the next election, what was missing (unsurprisingly) from his observation was that there are also those on the right of the party who would rather see Labour lose the next election than see Jeremy Corbyn as the next prime minister.

But to avoid allowing a Conservative-Brexit party landslide in the — now inevitable — early general election, the warring factions of the Labour party have a simple choice to make. They can either join hands and perform a rabid dance around the party’s ‘self-destruct’ button before bringing the country down with the ship, or they can call an uneasy truce. It’s that simple.

And one way to facilitate that truce would be to finally get rid of the party’s stirrer in chief: Labour’s Director of Communications, Seumas Milne; undoubtedly one of the ‘posh boys’ that Campbell was referring to.

Now before I get accused of provoking the very divide that I’ve just claimed is so damaging the party’s electoral chances, let me say this. Tellingly, Seumas Milne is a man who is loathed as much — if not more — by the party’s left as he is by the right.

The Director of Communications is an incredibly powerful position in the Labour Party, which involves directing the party’s messaging and strategic decision-making. Therefore, it’s stating the obvious to say that this role is critical in an election campaign.

It is surely also stating the obvious, that having someone in that position who actively undermines the will of the party membership, party policy and indeed the shadow cabinet is not a fit person to take on the role.

He currently holds an unassailable position within the party, and Jeremy Corbyn is simply incapable of reigning him in.

The most telling example of this is how, for ten days in Spring 2019, he and his circle ignored shadow cabinet instructions to call off talks with the Conservatives to try and get Theresa May’s Brexit deal through the Commons.

Just let that sink in. For ten days, he — an unelected Labour official — ignored the instructions of Jeremy Corbyn and his elected shadow cabinet. The Labour Party negotiators continued their cosy little chats with one of the most appalling Conservative administrations for a generation in an attempt to get May’s Brexit deal over the line; a deal that — no matter what ‘concessions’ Labour extracted — would never be anything other than a ‘Tory Brexit’.

The voters showed their disgust at the subsequent European elections. Labour suffered its worst election defeat ever, as many progressives switched to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats and Greens (significantly outnumbering those that switched to the pro-Brexit Conservatives or Brexit Party).

And yet Milne faced no repercussions for this whatsoever.

Some may retort that deputy leader Tom Watson is equally as guilty of undermining the party, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. What I would say however, is that Tom Watson was democratically elected to his position. There is a process (a vote of one fifth of the Parliamentary Labour Party) through which he can be removed from office. Neither of these checks and balances apply to Seumas Milne.

For months after the Labour’s 2018 party conference, where a second referendum was explicitly agreed (in fact, written into the motion) as one of their ‘options on the table’, Milne’s ‘anonymous’ anti-second referendum briefings to lobby journalists became a running joke in the Westminster village.

And yet the party communications chief’s briefings against party policy led to no repercussions for Milne whatsoever.

Some may retort that leader Jeremy Corbyn is equally as complicit for failing — as leader — to keep Milne in check, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. What I would say however, is that Jeremy Corbyn was democratically elected to his position. There is a process (a vote of one fifth of the Parliamentary Labour Party) through which he can be removed from office. Neither of these checks and balances apply to Seumas Milne.

Milne is vehemently against a second Brexit referendum which, inconveniently for him, is now official party policy in all circumstances. Considering his track record of repeatedly undermining official party positions, is he really the right person to manage the party’s messaging over this critical issue during the upcoming election campaign?

Reportedly, whilst working at the Guardian newspaper, Milne had a habit of refusing to move out of anyone’s way when walking down corridors. Sums up all you need to know about the man really. I struggle to work out what motivates this son of a BBC Director General. I can’t help but wonder whether his understanding of ‘the working class’ might derive from a geography field trip to a local council estate organised by the prestigious private school he attended. Milne’s preferred Labour conference slogan “People before privilege” perhaps proves that irony is indeed dead.

The most explosive and damning indictment against Seumas Milne came from Labour’s policy director Andrew Fisher, before he resigned. Regarded (somewhat controversially) as a bastion of the party’s left and the only member of Corbyn’s leadership campaign who remained in the leader’s core team, his leaked memo to the Times was scathing of Corbyn’s aides. He accused them of lacking “professionalism, competence and human decency”.

Apparently, Milne is prone to overruling the decisions of other aides or the shadow cabinet. His strategy for the inevitable early general election is reportedly “80% offensive, 20% defensive”; meaning that 80% of resources to go into attempts at Labour gains with only 20% going into Labour defences. Fisher’s memo concludes with the chilling words: “I no longer have faith that we can succeed”.

If the person largely credited for Labour’s surprise result in 2017 saying he no longer believes that the party can win a general election doesn’t serve as a wake-up call to the party’s membership and leadership then frankly, nothing will.

But there are tentative signs that it might be.

According to a report in The Times, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell is planning to “launch a power grab from Corbyn’s aides, including… Seumas Milne… by putting himself in daily charge of the Labour operation as they move onto a general election footing”

I am certainly not John McDonnell’s number one fan, and who knows if he’d make things better or worse, but I sincerely hope — short of Jeremy Corbyn finally plucking up the courage to sack Milne — that he goes through with this plan.

After voting for Jacques Chirac, who was pitted against the far right’s Jean-Marie le Pen in the 2002 French presidential election, a communist party local councillor explained “when the house is on fire, you don’t care too much if the water you put it out with is dirty.”

I’d say that when it comes to the current political landscape in the U.K. and the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit, our house is pretty irrefutably ‘on fire’.

As Gary Younge points out so eloquently in the Guardian, progressive Corbyn-sceptics must do all they can to put out ‘the fire’ of a no-deal Brexit, even if this means using what they might see as the ‘dirty water’ of supporting a Corbyn-led government.

But I think it’d also be very helpful if we could get rid of one of the chief arsonists.

And Seumas Milne holds the distinction, of not only being someone that both the left and right of the Labour Party can agree is a key culprit, but also as holding a position that is utterly critical to the party’s chances of thwarting a tyrannical Conservative government.

You can follow me on Twitter @mrwillsadler