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1 September 2016

Heal and settle? How Team Corbyn hope to put the party back together again

The leader's allies believe demonstrating greater competence will bring enough of the rebels back on side. 

By Stephen Bush

Although the mood in the leader’s office is not one of elation, it’s fair to say that minds are more focussed on securing a successful conference following Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election than updating their LinkedIns in the event of a shock victory for Owen Smith.

Within Team Corbyn, the feeling is that they are well-placed to enjoy a better start to Corbyn’s second spell at the top than his first. Although a series of polls of the race made Corbyn the favourite to win, with even the bookmakers belatedly catching up to the Corbyn phenomenon by the last days, the Corbyn operation was still poorly-prepared for victory. Most of the campaign had taken leave from their jobs or were on secondment from sympathetic trade unions, leaving the newly-elected Labour leader with a barebones staff in which Simon Fletcher, the campaign manager, was acting as chief-of-staff, head of rebuttal, and roving press officer.

This time, Corbyn’s allies believe, things will be very different. The leaders’ office has remained separate from the campaign, so the transition between the two should be less painful than it was last summer.

The expectation is that enough people who have quit the shadow cabinet will return, particularly, as looks likely from all the polls and from constituency nominations, Corbyn secures a larger victory than he did last year.

There is a view among some senior Corbynites that moving forward with a pared-down shadow cabinet is not all bad news.  Last year, in order to get a balanced Cabinet they had to hand big jobs to Andy Burnham’s mostly male allies, which they received a hammering over and the resulting unity didn’t last past the row over the Syria vote. However, it is a minority view.

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There is a recognition that many of the complaints about competence have been fair, but a feeling that the new “flat” structure of the leader’s office – with Seumas Milne, Simon Fletcher, Karie Murphy and Katy Clark all on an equal footing, with Murphy acting as office manager – has started to pay dividends. “If we show competence, that will bring some people back onside,” says one senior figure. Another sums up the view: “The reality is that most MPs are not out to get him every day or talking to press. There are 10 or so who are, we could both name them, but there is a winnable middle out there.”

As for party headquarters, although talk of a wholesale purge of party staff is overstated, the leader’s office will take steps to “fix the relationship” with the leader’s office and party HQ. There is little appetite to relocate the leader’s office from Norman Shaw South to party HQ, which some Miliband allies believed would have given Ed Miliband a better grip on the party’s operations. But is likely that a deputy for Milne will be appointed, who will work out of Southside to get HQ and the leader’s office singing from the same sheet.

Overall, there is a sense of optimism that 2017 will be a more successful year than 2016, as the contradictions over Brexit begin to make themselves shown, while the populist stylings of Vote Leave are seen as a better harbinger for Corbyn than Theresa May. “This year [starting in September] will be better than last year,” says one staffer.

As for Corbyn’s opponents, despite the poor polling, many Corbynsceptics still believe than Smith will triumph despite the odds. It remains to be seen whether the shock of defeat makes Corbyn’s internal critics inclined to make peace – or more committed to his overthrow.