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Labour leadership: Simon Fletcher's resignation is a victory for Seumas Milne

Organisational victory for Karie Murphy means strategic victory for Seumas Milne. 

Simon Fletcher, Jeremy Corbyn’s director of campaigns, has quit the leader’s office.

Fletcher was Corbyn’s campaign manager in his first bid for the Labour leadership, and his chief of staff until 3 June 2016, when he was appointed director of campaigns and tasked with getting the party fighting fit for the election.

This resignation was a long time coming. Some saw Fletcher as a crucial lynchpin of the office, who held things together “through force of will” in the words of one insider. In the early days of Corbyn’s leadership, he operated as chief of staff, press officer, head of rebuttal, chief strategist and speechwriter while the work of hiring a team around Corbyn went on. However, that meant others saw him as responsible for the missteps of the early days.

He and Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s communications chief, were often at odds. Fletcher and Anneliese Midgley, his deputy, both refused to take part in a Vice News documentary about Corbyn which was widely panned and presented an unflattering view of the leader’s office.

But in a signal of where power in the leader’s office lay, Midgley quit in April to take up a post as political director at Unite.

Shortly thereafter, there was an internal reshuffle of the leader’s office, with the abolition of the role of chief of staff and the introduction of a new “flat” structure. Fletcher became director of campaigns and planning, Milne became director of communications and strategy, Andrew Fisher was director of policy and Karie Murphy was director of the leader’s office, responsible for running the leader’s office day-to-day.

In a further confirmation of Milne’s internal success, he made his loan move from the Guardian permanent at the turn of the year, while Murphy has an enhanced role running the leader’s office day to day. In addition, new hires in the communications department - James Schneider and Matt Zarb-Cousin - both came with the Milne seal of approval, in contrast to his previous deputy, Kevin Slocombe, who was a Fletcher hire. 

Opinions of Murphy differ wildly. In the leader's office, she is seen having brought significantly improved organisation and greater intensity to the team. But what call an insistence on high standards, others see very differently. 

Friends of Jon Trickett say that she was instrumental in pushing him out as the party’s election coordinator. The two clashed at one recent meeting and allies of Trickett, now demoted to the Cabinet Office, say that she made his job “unworkable”.

Insiders say that Murphy is “waging war” on multiple members of the leader’s office, with one dubbing her a “control freak”, who was keen to add Fletcher’s role of oversight for the election campaign into her own orbit.

“The thing about Jeremy,” says one senior source, “Is that he can tell people what they want to hear, and then he has to get Seumas or Karie to tell them what he really wanted to say. So you’ll read stories about how Seumas has forced something through or Karie has gone over Jeremy’s head, but actually that’s not it at all.”

But for critics of Murphy's, Fletcher’s exit, they say, will exacerbate the low morale and internal tension in the leader's office. 

Whoever is right about what comes next, the central truth remains: Fletcher’s resignation is a sign of internal victory for Milne and Murphy.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.