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9 August 2016

How Jeremy Corbyn will reshape Labour’s backrooms after victory

Plans are already being drawn up to remodel Labour's back offices – and Corbyn's own. 

By Stephen Bush

“There’s always a civil war the year after the revolution,” one senior ally of Jeremy Corbyn’s quipped recently, “The important thing this time is to win the peace.”

Confident of victory even before the High Court ruled that members would be able to vote even if they joined up after the six-month freeze date introduced by the party’s ruling executive, and even more buoyant following a clean sweep of the membership section of the party’s NEC, minds on the Labour left are turning to the question of what happens after what is now believed to be a near-inevitable victory.

Squarely in the firing line is Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol. The leader’s office is furious with McNicol, who, they believe, was intimately involved with the attempt to remove Corbyn from the ballot. They also think that the general secretary has few allies who will go bat for him, having assured the rebels that he could secure a majority on the NEC to keep Corbyn off the ballot.

Labour has only had one female general secretary in its history, and its “woman problem” has been once again thrown to the forefront following the election of an all-male roster in its candidate list for the coming metro-mayor elections. Replacing McNicol with a Corbynite woman would “kill two birds with one stone”. Jennie Formby, the former political director of Unite, who is regarded as a true believer would be a strong contender (some in Unite, including Len McCluskey himself, are regarded as fair-weather Corbynistas, fairly or unfairly). It would also pave the way for what is regarded as an essential post-victory: the conversion of party HQ, still largely a hold out against Corbynism. (It is, however, a misnomer to regard party headquarters as a “Blairite” enclave. Most staffers wanted Yvette Cooper, a Brownite, to prevail in 2015 and are supporters of Tom Watson.) Ben Soffa, the party’s head of digital, is currently the only true-blue Corbynite at directorate level. There is frustration in Team Corbyn as what they see as foot-dragging by party headquarters, who, they say, made party members’ contact details available to them after Owen Smith’s campaign. “Cards have been marked, names have been noted,” says one loyalist staffer. 

But there is also a feeling among Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement and in Momentum that there need to be changes in the leader’s office, too. “We needed poets and hard men,” said one senior trade unionist, “Instead we got cranks and pseudo-revolutionaries.” Karie Murphy, who manages the office, is regarded as having brought greater cohesion and in any case is a vital link to Unite and Len McCluskey. But Simon Fletcher, her predecessor, now director of campaigns is still under threat. With Neale Coleman now working for Owen Smith’s leadership campaign and Ken Livingstone on the outside, the “Livingstone tendency” as one Corbynite jokingly dubs them, is under some threat if there is a clear-out.

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Corbyn’s backers in the Communication Workers’ Union and the TSSA, who are once again providing both financial and organisational muscle to Corbyn’s campaign, are likely to demand additional personnel in the leader’s office. Many want Sam Tarry of the TSSA, currently on secondment to Corbyn’s leadership campaign, to make a permanent move to the leader’s spin operation, to bolster Seumas Milne. A designated speechwriter could be hired to ease the workload of Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s policy chief, who also serves as the leader’s speechwriter. Meanwhile, within Momentum, they want a greater focus on increasing the leader’s social media footprint, particularly on Facebook. One sums up the lessons that should be drawn from Bernie Sanders’ tilt at the Democratic presidential nomination: “Hold big rallies, make great videos.”