When trying to make sense of what is happening inside Jeremy Corbyn’s office, most Westminster commentators rely on a familiar formula: “the four Ms”. What the Labour leader says or does, the thinking goes, is best understood as deriving from the influence of four members of his inner circle: Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, Andrew Murray, McCluskey’s chief of staff, Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of communications and strategy, and Karie Murphy, his chief of staff.
Neat though it is, the formula was never entirely accurate. Now it is redundant. On 8 October, Murphy was abruptly moved from her role running Corbyn’s office to the Labour Party’s HQ, where she will notionally oversee the party’s next election campaign. Official briefings insisted it was business as usual. But her enforced departure marks the beginning of a new phase in Corbyn’s leadership.
Murphy’s exit is best understood not as a tale of four Ms, but of two Ks: “Karie”, as the pugnacious former nurse is universally known in Labour circles, and “Kerslake” – Bob Kerslake, the former cabinet secretary. Last month, after Labour’s conference began with a disastrous move to abolish the post of deputy leader, and with it the last vestiges of Tom Watson’s influence, Corbyn concluded that something had to be done about the first K, Karie, and so turned to Kerslake.
Appointed in February 2016, Murphy – a close political ally and personal friend of McCluskey, and a former employee of Watson – is credited with professionalising Corbyn’s often chaotic political operation. But her combative approach won her more detractors than admirers. She is feared by many staff and loathed by most Labour MPs, who blame her for Corbyn’s reluctance to back a second Brexit referendum and his inept response to Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis. Even devout Corbynites in the shadow cabinet came to believe that she was an impediment to success.
The resignation in September of Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential head of policy, had also led to broader concerns about the dysfunctionality of Corbyn’s office. In a leaked memo to colleagues, Fisher complained of a “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency”.
“I feel like I’m living in a sitcom,” one staffer complained of the Corbyn leadership. “It’s like a madhouse in here.” To resolve these issues, Corbyn and John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor, turned to Kerslake, a cross-bench peer who advises the leadership on preparing for government. He was instructed to carry out a “short, sharp review” of internal structures.
In 2016, Kerslake had advised Corbyn to create the role of chief of staff that became Murphy’s. Now, the first act of his review – expected to last a fortnight – has shunted her into a campaigning role. Reports suggested Kerslake had delivered the news to Murphy in a phone call, but sources said she was told privately, in a face-to-face meeting with the leader and shadow chancellor. Though she retains the title of chief of staff, she has lost her place at Corbyn’s side.
Murphy’s removal has been spun as a temporary secondment, but there will be no return. Her replacement, former civil servant Helene Reardon-Bond, is already in post. One Labour official describes Reardon-Bond, the former head of the Government Equalities Office, as “particularly interested in the lack of formal decision-making structures” in Corbyn’s office. McDonnell is now chairing the internal committee that oversees election preparations. And more moves are coming: 37 members of staff have been invited to meet Kerslake to discuss their roles.
Sources familiar with Labour’s organisation review stress that it is neither a plan for redundancies, nor a purge of targeted individuals – and the result may well be that Corbyn hires more staff.
There is, however, speculation about the future of Seumas Milne, another bête noire of Labour MPs and Remainers in the shadow cabinet. Some believe his current brief is too powerful and unwieldy.
Kerslake’s role in the process is also viewed by those closest to Corbyn with more than a little suspicion. His first civil service job was at the Greater London Council, during McDonnell’s tenure as deputy to Ken Livingstone.
Is Kerslake enforcing a power-grab by the shadow chancellor? Allies of McDonnell reject that suggestion – and he is far from the only Corbyn loyalist to have had misgivings about Murphy. “John is reorienting the politics as much as the office structures,” one shadow cabinet member told me. “He thinks we need to be clearer on Remain if we’re going to win an election. But in the end, this [the restructure] is happening with Jeremy’s consent.”
Yet the many Labour MPs who longed for Murphy’s departure may find their cause for celebration is short-lived. The shadow cabinet members who disliked her management style but agreed with her on Brexit worry that Labour’s shift to a Remain position may be unstoppable. And as Corbyn restructures his staff, his detractors may soon be disabused of one Labour’s most enduring myths: that its leader is a prisoner of his advisers.
This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war