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23 March 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 4:40pm

Why a good list is at the heart of successful politics

Jeremy Corbyn's leaked list shows what the leader's office is doing right, and what it's doing wrong

By John McTernan

Lists. Politics is nothing without lists. There are the ‘promises’ you try to mobilise on polling day when you Get Out The Vote (GOTV). There was that essential tool for managing Labour groups in the Eighties: dividing them into “Goodies, Baddies and Nutters”. And there’s the list that Roy Jenkins always carried with him when in the Commons of the colleagues he needed to talk to.

All lists with a purpose. That’s the point. In politics lists are a management tool. They are dynamic not static – used to mark a point in time and then to manage people from one position to another. From “undecided” to “for”, from “against” to “undecided”. Always grow your available vote.

But lists require integrity. They must be accurate and one person must hold the pen. You can’t crowd-source a conspiracy – that’s what gaining and holding power is, at base. And any good conspiracy has to be secret too.

So, we come to today’s list. The carefully drawn up one that emanates from Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Or, more precisely from the desk of his political Secretary Katy Clark. It has obviously failed one key test – it isn’t secret. Too many people clearly had copies – worse, it was probably emailed around too. One list should have one copy and one filing cabinet.

But worse than that, it is laughably inaccurate. There are many MPs put in the wrong categories. Funniest is the “Core plus” group – the 50 or so MPs rated as close to Corbyn though not in the Core group that voted for him. At a quick glance I can identify half a dozen names of people who are anything but supportive of Jeremy. I will not name them, for the protection of the guilty.

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I will observe, though, that for all things leadership critical you must employ a “hard count” – only score the committed, not the maybes. Do not believe in what you merely hope may be so.

Interestingly, it is said that the “Core” group meet weekly with Clark and Seamas Milne. And that this is often a “whinge-a-thon”. This is one of the few bits of good political management being run by the Corbyn office. You need to see your loyalists regularly.

In my time as Tony Blair’s political secretary we had the “non-embittered former ministers group”. That was as small as you might guess it would be. By the end of Tony’s time as Prime Minister the number of former ministers was larger than Labour’s majority – and most of them had miraculously discovered a political conscience. And that conscience impelled them to speak and vote against a government they had previously loyally supported. The non-embittereds were different. Loyal to the leader and accepting of the change and renewal that had seen them move on. They gave intel on the colleagues and their mood, in exchange they received briefing and “the line”.

The problem for Corbyn is simply put. We were managing the politics eight years after Blair was elected Prime Minister not eight months after he became leader. We looked and felt beleaguered – because we were. They look and feel beleaguered because, well, they are. Support for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is not growing in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the end, in politics you need to be either respected it feared – they are neither. Worse, as this leaks list shows, they are increasingly mockable. Authority ebbs gradually, but laughter is a universal solvent. 

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