Labour, the story goes, is on course to win power only because the Conservatives are imploding. This is a false narrative, developed in Westminster – but it is rooted in reason. Parties rarely, if ever, recover from a defeat as decisive as that suffered by Labour in 2019 within a single parliament.
But Keir Starmer has been patiently following a three-year plan to win power, and it is starting to work. It was drawn up by one of his longest-serving aides, Morgan McSweeney, now Labour’s campaign director, to whom all policy and communications staff report.
Few outside Westminster will have heard of the unshowy Irishman but McSweeney, 45, is the most powerful backroom operator in Starmer’s team and instrumental in everything the opposition does – from singing the national anthem at this year’s party conference to marginalising left-wingers through a new candidate selection programme.
McSweeney is a 20-year veteran of Labour campaigns, having moved from a working-class home in County Cork, Ireland, to London in 1994 to work on building sites. “Morgan is not just of Labour, he’s an actual labourer,” quips one close friend. After graduating from Middlesex University with a degree in politics and marketing, McSweeney’s first taste of electoral politics came in 2001 when his task was to input data into Peter Mandelson’s renowned “Excalibur” computer – which stored information for the party’s rapid rebuttal unit to use during the 1997 election.
McSweeney inspired “fierce loyalty” in his team and gained a reputation as the “organiser’s organiser” whom others would go to for advice on message discipline, strategy and data. The former health secretary Alan Milburn dispatched him to marginal seats ahead of the 2005 general election, which Labour won with a 66-seat majority.
But it was McSweeney’s time organising in London boroughs that shaped his politics. At Lambeth Council under Steve Reed (now Starmer’s shadow justice secretary), he led a revolt against the far-left factions for which the authority had become notorious, and helped the party gain the council from a Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2006.
The south London borough was also where McSweeney met his wife, Imogen Walker, with whom he has a son and lives in Lanark, Scotland (he commutes to London each week). Between 2008 and 2010, McSweeney was on the front line in the battle against the British National Party in Barking alongside Labour councillors, the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate and Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham. Nick Griffin’s party held 12 council seats but was driven out as Labour adopted a relentless focus on patriotism and tackling crime.
“He was the real unsung hero of the whole thing,” says Cruddas, a fellow Irish Catholic and a friend of McSweeney’s. “It got pretty tasty, but Morgan was key in terms of organising discipline, sorting out communications and systematically analysing the voters.” He adds: “Morgan’s done almost every job in the Labour Party. There’s no sense of entitlement and now he’s at the top of the party, that’s quite a unique characteristic. He has the psychology of an organiser and he’s quite brilliant at it. These fundamental political skills have been chiselled out over years, so he’s no blow-in to anything.”
Allies say the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement and fighting racism, including anti-Semitism within Labour, remain the “cornerstone of his politics”.
After Labour lost power in 2010, McSweeney switched his focus. He grew a power base as head of the Labour Group Office at the Local Government Association. The membership organisation for town halls became something of a priest hole for moderates during the Corbyn era, with Newcastle City Council’s Nick Forbes serving as group leader and Nathan Yeowell, now the director of Progressive Britain, preceding McSweeney as head of office.
“He used his role to talent-spot [future MPs] because he played a long game,” says Forbes, who also describes McSweeney as a deft troubleshooter often called in as a “bomb disposal expert” before scandals blow up.
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Following the 2017 general election defeat, McSweeney set up Labour Together, a network of activists and thinkers from across the party’s traditions, as well as the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which was initially designed to target online anti-Semitism but was broadened to racism more generally. “McSweeney understood that the Corbyn project could only be ended by voters, and when it was, you needed to have an alternative in place for it,” says one friend.
It was here that he masterminded what became Starmer’s three-year plan. First, Labour would perform “immediate CPR” to detoxify the party’s ranks, then focus on becoming an effective opposition in parliament, before finally bidding to win power by outflanking the Conservatives on crime, defence and the economy. McSweeney has long referred to the Tories’ reputation for economic competence (an area in which the party now often trails Labour in the polls) as “the flaw on the Death Star”, in reference to Star Wars.
McSweeney ran Starmer’s successful 2020 leadership campaign and initially served as chief of staff before taking on his current role in September 2021. Starmer is said to value the “inscrutable” McSweeney for his discretion, as well as his ability to “absorb information” without exchanging it with anyone potentially hostile.
“He is fond of a pint or two, but I have never seen him drunk,” says Forbes. “He manages to carry a huge amount of knowledge around with him. Sometimes you’d hardly know that Morgan had been there, but he remembers everything about it.”
Labour’s selection process for parliamentary candidates, which caused fierce rows with the trade union movement, was devised by McSweeney. Under the system, the party’s HQ has retained a tight grip on the crucial longlisting stage and, to date, almost no one from the Corbynite left has made it past Starmer’s praetorian guard.
“He doesn’t have room for compromise with the hard left,” says Forbes. “He thinks they need to be eradicated from the party because they are so dangerous.”
Critics suspect that McSweeney’s true long game was to install a moderate, such as the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, or the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, as leader, and that Labour’s high poll ratings have taken him by surprise. “They thought Keir was a Neil Kinnock but he’s really a John Smith,” says one source.
McSweeney is not expected to seek a role in a Starmer government should Labour win the next general election. But he and his allies will certainly seek to claim credit.
“So much real genius is understanding what the fundamentals are, designing a plan to get there, and having the strength of mind to stick to it over time, even as everyone’s jumping up and down and shouting ‘chase the shiny object’,” says one long-standing friend.
“Morgan doesn’t do that. He breathes, keeps his cool and delivers the plan.”
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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in