New Times,
New Thinking.

What does Labour Together want?

Director Josh Simons on the think tank’s political and ideological project.

By George Eaton

On the first floor of Westminster’s Millbank Tower – home to New Labour during its imperial phase – lies a group similarly charged with political ambition. In a short period, Labour Together has become one of Britain’s most discussed – and sometimes reviled – think tanks. Descriptions increasingly tend towards the martial: it has been called “the provisional wing of Starmerism” and “Morgan McSweeney’s Wagner group”. But what is this seemingly armed struggle for?

Founded almost a decade ago, Labour Together’s origins are now shrouded in the mists of time. A popular narrative is that the group was launched by moderates to “fight back” against Jeremy Corbyn and the radical left. This gets the history wrong: Labour Together was first incorporated on 9 June 2015 as Common Good Labour by John Clarke, the former director of Blue Labour, the left conservative group. It was not intended to resist Corbyn – who did not become leader until September – but to promote a communitarian ethos within the party

Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and one of the group’s original founders, cited three reasons for its creation. “One was intellectual and policy renewal because there was so little of that about. Second, it was to get a lot of MPs talking to one another in a very factionalised world. Third, it was to literally keep the party together.”

In this spirit of pluralism, the group was renamed Labour Together, partly to avoid confusion with the separate Labour for the Common Good. The latter, founded by MPs Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt, quickly became known as “The Resistance” to Corbyn. (It is not only the radical left that sometimes has a Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea quality.) 

But under McSweeney – now Labour’s campaign director – who became head of Labour Together in 2017 it did become a more avowedly political organisation. It devised a meticulous strategy to retake Labour from the radical left in a post-Corbyn leadership election – one that culminated in Keir Starmer’s victory in April 2020. 

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Labour Together’s third iteration came with the appointment of Josh Simons as director in October 2022. To Blue Labour critics, it became a less intellectually ambitious organisation. Works such as Labour’s Covenant: A plan for national reconstruction – a document intended to promote debate within the shadow cabinet – were removed from its website. The new Labour Together was overtly aligned with the Starmer leadership and determined to become a more visible Westminster player. 

Even sceptics concede that – on its own terms – this project has been a success. Aided by a wealth of donors, Labour Together has grown from one staff member in October 2022 to 34 with a wider network of policy fellows and board members taking its total headcount to nearly 80. It now funds staff in the offices of nine shadow cabinet ministers: Yvette Cooper, Louise Haigh, John Healey, Darren Jones, David Lammy, Shabana Mahmood, Rachel Reeves and Nick Thomas-Symonds. 

These include Nick Garland, the author of Reeves’ recent Mais Lecture, Jon Garvie, a former senior Foreign Office civil servant (in Lammy’s office), Danny Shaw, a former journalist (in Cooper’s office) and Jess Sargeant, a former associate director of the Institute for Government (in Thomas-Symonds’ office). 

Labour Together is a group unlike any other in recent British political history. It is not a think-tank/charity such as IPPR or the Resolution Foundation; it is not a consultancy such as Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change or Peter Mandelson’s Global Counsel; it is not a Labour-affiliated socialist society such as the Fabian Society or Labour Business. So what is it? 

“Our starting point is that we live in a political age,” Simons, a former Harvard University research fellow, told me when we met at Millbank (an Obama-style print of Starmer displayed on the wall behind him). 

“Why not be transparent and clear about our politics? We want Labour in power. So we’ll declare donations to the Electoral Commission and do political things that other organisations can’t.” 

Labour Together was last year fined by the Electoral Commission for failing to declare £730,000 of donations made between 2017 and 2020, something it attributed to “human error” and that Simons insisted the group had learned from. As of late March 2024, Labour Together had received £1.74m in the last 12 months (up from £165,000 the previous year) with key donors including Gary Lubner, the South African businessman and former group chief of Autoglass, and Trevor Chinn, the philanthropist and Jewish community leader. 

“I feel fairly uncompromising about this,” Simons said of the group’s fundraising. “A political party aspiring to government, and even one in government, always needs talent. Talent is everything in politics and talent costs money. If you’re a political organisation that means you need donations.”

He added: “I think there’s sometimes an aversion on the left to talking to people with money – many of those I have met are amazing, interesting people who know that they’re lucky, that they owe their government and country a huge amount, and want to help improve it.”

Labour Together’s recent publications include Reeves’ A New Business Model for Britain (on her vision of “securonomics”), Progressive Realist Peacemaking (on Lammy’s foreign policy doctrine) and Migration in The Age of Insecurity. But what now defines Labour Together ideologically?

“I’ve heard various slightly facile ways of describing us,” Simons replied. “New Labour in the age of insecurity. Modernised Blue Labour. The point about the limits of the label is actually important.”

“If you start with the moment, and we often talk about this internally, you have to have the humility to recognise that the moment is new. While you can and should draw on thinking and traditions, New Labour, Blue Labour, Old Right, or whatever, if you allow yourselves to be seduced into thinking that any one of those frames can generate the politics, strategy, and policy agenda that you need, then you’re probably not taking the novelty of this moment seriously enough.”

Key intellectual influences cited by Simons included Cambridge University professor and New Statesman contributor Helen Thompson (his undergraduate supervisor) and Harvard political philosophers Danielle Allen and Michael Sandel (who praised Starmer’s emphasis on the “dignity of work” when I recently interviewed him). 

Simons defined Labour Together’s mission as “putting working people at the heart of the centre left agenda again”. He emphasised three defining policy areas: the cost of living, crime and anti-social behaviour and migration and borders. 

“Unless you deliver on all three of those, and each of those has been a problem for centre-left governments across the world who’ve won, your re-election strategy becomes very difficult.”

Simons’ induction to Labour politics came in autumn 2015 when he served as a policy adviser in Corbyn’s office. He resigned after just seven months due to the leadership’s “persistent failure” to confront anti-Semitism. 

“It still makes my stomach churn when I relive some of the memories from that period,” Simons told me. “After Keir became leader, I remember going back up to the leader of the opposition’s office in Norman Shaw South and reliving some of the memories of being there in the Corbyn era. It was almost a physically uncomfortable thing.

“The first thing I was shocked by was the lack of professionalism. People just showed up to the office late. When they discovered that I was Jewish, I got put in charge of the relationships with the Jewish community. It took a while for the pattern in their behaviour to become clearer and clearer to me. But when it did, it was slightly terrifying.”

Alongside his Harvard fellowship, Simons worked as a visiting research scientist at Facebook AI and published Algorithms for the People: Democracy in the Age of AI in 2023. It was Starmer’s vow to “tear out the poison” of anti-Semitism that drew him back to Labour. 

“I couldn’t stomach the idea of watching that happen from afar. My view was that I want it to happen and support it so I want to help.”

If anything defined Starmer, he argued, it was his anti-populism. 

“His experience was forged by having to face both a left populist in Jeremy Corbyn and then a right populist in Boris Johnson – he saw them both off. What drives Keir is delivering stuff that is real, practical and felt by the people that it’s supposed to help. That is the complete antithesis of populism – you are recognising the legitimacy of the grievances people have, taking them seriously, and addressing them.

“The fury that many have remarked on that he felt towards Corbyn and Johnson I think is explained by that disposition.”

What of Simons’ own future? He is seeking a parliamentary seat and is described by those who know him well as fiercely ambitious.

“I really believe politics matters in the age we live in,” Simons said. “Many people don’t enter politics because it’s a tough job that almost always ends in failure. Personally, I’ve not stood for selection because my focus has been on building Labour Together. Going forward, I will support Keir’s project however I best can.” (Some expect that he will serve in Starmer’s No 10 in a political role should he fail to win selection.) 

Labour Together originated as an attempt to hold the centre in the aftermath of the party’s traumatic 2015 general election defeat. But its fate is now almost entirely bound to that of Starmer’s project. “That reset was necessary and understandable but it [Labour Together] has lost those sites for internal dialogue and intellectual and political renewal, which will be vital in government,” Cruddas told me. 

Simons, however, insists that Labour Together has a purpose far beyond the election. 

“Around the world, centre-left parties have struggled not only to win, but to govern. The electorate is more volatile. The trends shaping the future are creating a more insecure and uncertain world. Now more than ever, we need political organisations thinking about what this means for progressives committed to delivering for working people.”

[See also: The Labour vibe shift]

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