Labour MPs and activists are in Liverpool this week as party conference season gets underway. Keir Starmer opened the event with tributes to the Queen but insiders say to expect a series of significant policy announcements.
The party conference entails months of meticulous planning. But how does the Labour operation work behind closed doors? And who does the leader trust?
Deborah Mattinson – director of strategy
Mattinson, the founder and former director of the research consultancy Britain Thinks, has been Starmer’s strategic brain since July 2021. Her job has been to provide a laser-like focus on voters that could help Labour to win a general election, in particular those who backed the Conservatives in 2019. Insiders say Starmer’s focus on “security, prosperity, respect” comes from Mattinson. However, her critics believe the party has been too reliant on focus groups and too liable to change course.
Matthew Doyle – communications director
Another journeyman of the Blair era, Doyle served as Labour’s head of press between 1998 and 2005 and later as political director. He has also been director of communications in Europe for David Miliband’s International Rescue Committee. After joining Starmer’s team as interim communications director in June 2021 Doyle was given the role permanently and has been vital to raising the leader’s profile and improving message discipline. Colleagues describe him as professional and practically-minded. Steph Driver, who previously worked for Ed Balls, deputises for Doyle and does much of the legwork with media titles hostile to Labour. Colleagues describe her as “made of steel”.
Morgan McSweeney – elections director
Starmer’s 2020 Labour leadership campaign was run by McSweeney and he was initially kept on as chief of staff. He now runs the show at the party’s Southside headquarters and is responsible for getting Labour election-ready, with oversight of candidate selection. Working closely with McSweeney are two of “the three Matts”, Matthew Pound, special adviser to David Evans, the general secretary, and Matthew Faulding, the selections manager. From a party management and operations perspective, the trio are the most powerful people in the Labour Party.
Peter Hyman – senior adviser
Hyman worked as Tony Blair’s speechwriter for almost a decade from 2002 and served as head of strategic communications. Having played key roles in Blair’s election victories, he left to pursue a career in education and set up two schools and a charity. He joined Starmer’s team recently and his role is to hone Labour’s manifesto and write speeches.
Paul Ovenden – director of attack and rebuttal
Ovenden, a former journalist, joined Labour’s press team under Ed Miliband in 2014 and left in 2017, later serving as director of the public affairs agency Inhouse Communications and account director at M&C Saatchi. Ovenden helps Starmer to prepare for PMQs and is a trusted ally. His behind-the-scenes role helping reporters with tips and insights makes him a popular figure with Westminster lobby journalists.
Jill Cuthbertson – private secretary
As the manager of Starmer’s diary, Cuthbertson is the gatekeeper in the Labour leader’s office. A well-liked figure, she was previously events manager for the cross-party EU Remain campaign and head of scheduling for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.
Rav Athwal – policy director
Taking on the role after Claire Ainsley stepped down, Athwal was previously head of economic policy for the party. He was previously head of growth for HM Treasury and will help to write the party’s manifesto. He was key in the party’s Great British Energy plans and his appointment underlines that Labour will fight the next election on the economy.
Luke Sullivan – political director
Sullivan was appointed political director in 2021 when Jenny Chapman was moved from the role to become shadow Brexit minister following Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election. One of the most experienced Labour staffers, he has worked as a special adviser for the party in both government and opposition, in particular for Nick Brown, a former chief whip. His job has been to improve relations between the leader’s office and backbench MPs after a fractious period.
Vidhya Alakeson – external relations director
Alakeson joined Labour in February after running Power To Change, a charity that supports community businesses. She is also former deputy chief executive of the respected economic think tank the Resolution Foundation. Part of her role has been to improve Labour’s relationship with businesses – the party raised £45m in donations last year but will want to be election-ready – and ethnic minority communities as concern rises that the party is losing its base among some groups.
Stuart Ingham – executive director of policy
Ingham began working for Starmer as a researcher in 2016 when the leader was shadow Brexit secretary and served as director of policy on his leadership campaign team. He served as deputy director of policy previously and also advises the shadow cabinet and writes questions and speeches for PMQs.
Alan Lockey – speechwriter
A former aide of Tristram Hunt’s, Lockey has been with the Starmer team for a few months and has been recruited as pen-holder and writer of the leader’s all-important conference speech this year. He will work alongside Ovenden and Ingham. Recruited from the Royal Society of Arts, where he was head of programme for the Future of Work project, he was previously research director at Demos.
David Wood – trade union liaison
Wood acts as a go-between for Starmer’s team and the trade unions, arguably one of the most complex and politically tricky positions. His time as a stakeholder advice officer in the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s office equips him well for the role. That the job did not go to someone with a stronger trade union background has frustrated some, however.
Sophie Nazemi – commmunications director (press)
A survivor of the Jeremy Corbyn era, Nazemi has remained head of press for Labour despite her background as an organiser for Momentum and a complete overhaul of the team. Insiders say Starmer values her work ethic and professionalism.
Shabana Mahmood – national campaign co-ordinator
Mahmood, who is from a Kashmiri family in Birmingham, is the MP for Birmingham Ladywood and became Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator in May 2021. She passed her first test by overseeing victory in the Batley and Spen by-election. Seen as on the right of the party, she has few fans on the left and some describe her as overly combative. The former barrister held several frontbench positions during Miliband’s tenure but resigned as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury under Corbyn. She is credited with achieving improved results at May’s local elections.
Rachel Reeves – shadow chancellor
Reeves replaced Anneliese Dodds, who was failing to cut through and subject to increasingly hostile briefings, in May 2021 after mounting a sustained attack on the Conservatives over cronyistic PPE contracts while shadowing Michael Gove in the Cabinet Office. Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, is the shadow cabinet minister Starmer is closest to despite them having no friendship prior to his election as an MP in 2015. One source said: “Obviously Blair and Brown were very close in opposition but it was laced with Brown’s frustration that he was not leader and an expectation he would succeed. There is none of that with Rachel and Keir.” Reeves works closely with her economics advisor Spencer Thompson, who devised the windfall tax and energy price freeze policy and previously worked for the think tank IPPR, and speech-writer Neil Foster, who has a long history in the trade union movement, working on campaigns and policy at both the TUC and GMB.
Katie Martin – chief of staff to Reeves
Martin, director of external affairs for Citizens Advice until last year, has also worked for the Guardian as head of philanthropic partnerships and as managing director of the behavioural science company Ideas 42. She was also chief press officer at No 10 during the last two years of Gordon Brown’s premiership.
Heather Iqbal – head of communications to Reeves
A rising star within Labour, Iqbal is seen as central to the party boosting its economic credibility among the media. Popular with her colleagues, she joined Reeves’s team in 2020 having worked at the human rights NGO Global Witness as a senior adviser. She also served on Starmer’s leadership campaign.
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