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10 October 2019

The only surprise is that Karie Murphy wasn’t given the push from Jeremy Corbyn’s office sooner

The Labour leader's combative chief of staff has long been at the centre of intra-party rows.

By Ailbhe Rea

For journalists hoping to cover the inner life of the UK’s two main parties, there has been a longstanding problem with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. While Boris Johnson’s Downing Street produces drama worthy of a Netflix series, complete with fiery anonymous briefings, Spads being marched from the premises with a police escort, and reliably colourful leaks from Friday pep talks over pizza, the inner life of the Labour party just… isn’t terribly sexy.

Unlike Dominic Cummings, who is ripe for the imagination with his balding maverick look and distinctive briefing style, the unelected team around Corbyn lacks a famous (relatively speaking) figure to act as a hook in news stories: shadow cabinet members like John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry are well known, but only diehard fans and insiders, as far as I can tell, know their Andrew Murray from their James Schneider.

Those trying to sex-up their coverage of the complicated cast of characters in Labour’s top team have seized upon a particular coinage: “the four Ms”, denoting the four people who exert (or now, exerted) the most influence over the leader: Unite’s Len McClusky and Andrew Murray, the disarmingly charming and famously ruthless Seumas Milne, and the firebrand, Karie Murphy.  

Murphy, a character interesting enough to rival Cummings, has just been ousted as Corbyn’s chief of staff.  A former nurse with flame-red hair and a famously fiery temper, she has been the fiercely loyal gatekeeper to Corbyn’s leadership and a controversial figure within the parliamentary party, many of whom viewed her as wielding too much power.  Notably, she is credited as one of the key influences behind Corbyn declining to adopt an unequivocally pro-Remain position: the Times reported that when Corbyn began to back a second referendum she “screamed” at him: “We’re not doing that, we’re not selling out our class.”

The drama Murphy has produced is less straightforwardly interesting than the equivalent produced by Cummings: instead of immediately fascinating hints about a new strategy or some combative language, her battles are internal and the controversy around her less deliberate. If you find the inner machinations of Labour tedious or less accessible than those of the Conservatives, it’s because Labour is all-too-frequently embroiled in dull-but-important scandals about complaints procedures, alleged cover-ups and rows over anti-Semitism, of which Murphy is often to be found at the centre.

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Aside from her controversial management style and influence over the party’s Brexit policy, Murphy time and again has been at the heart of the wholly avoidable controversies that have rumbled away in the background of Corbyn’s leadership. Much of the party’s anti-Semitism row has involved leaked emails showing Murphy’s involvement in the handling of complaints; other leaked emails show that Murphy refused to launch a formal probe into complaints of sexual misconduct against a senior party activist.

The pattern repeats itself in small ways; last week, I reported that votes by a local Labour branch to begin a formal reselection process against the local MP were declared “null and void” after some who voted were suspected of being ineligible, only for a decision to be made on high that the controversial votes would still stand. “Karie Murphy’s hand is in it,” whispered sources, and Labour did not deny that that was the case. Where a transparent process or a straightforward re-run of a controversial vote would have avoided all controversy, time and again Murphy’s name comes up in connection to a low-level scandal that so easily could have been avoided.

It isn’t even a question of factions within the party; Corbyn allies such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell are understood to have been longstanding critics of Murphy, and when another close Corbyn aide, Andrew Fisher, abruptly resigned before party conference last month, he criticised a “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency” in what looked like a personal dig at Murphy.

Now that she has been moved out of Corbyn’s office to party HQ, where she will work on the election campaign, some have insisted that this isn’t the snub it looks like, while others have emphasised that she played a vital role for Corbyn, “carry[ing] out the ugly jobs dutifully,” as one anonymous source told the website Skwawkbox.  It remains to be seen whether the party will be more or less beset by persistent scandal without Murphy at Corbyn’s side.

The main thing about Murphy’s ousting, however, is that it’s amazing it didn’t happen sooner.  And this is a very good time to take an interest in the unsexy world of the Labour top team, because Murphy’s ousting may only be the beginning of major machinations at the top of the party this year.

[See also: Will Jeremy Corbyn agree to step aside in Islington North?]

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