How Seumas Milne quietly became Labour's power player
PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 May 2019 | UPDATED: 16:12 03 May 2019
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JAMES BALL examines how Labour's director of strategy and communication emerged as the key figure in Corbyn's office.
In Labour circles, he is described as Corbyn's brain. Or – less flatteringly – Corbyn's Beria, after Stalin's most-feared secret police chief.
Both reflect the immense power Seumas Milne is said to wield at the top of the party, while the second nickname gives a hint of the fear he strikes into those who might find themselves in his path.
Labour's director of strategy and communication has emerged as perhaps the key figure in Jeremy Corbyn's office and in the ongoing internal party debate over the extent to which it should embrace a second referendum.
He is, say some of those who have been closely involved in the debate, implacably and ideologically opposed to the European Union and one of the main reasons the leadership is resisting all efforts by its Remain-leaning MPs and members to support a People's Vote more unequivocally.
For all his power and influence, though, Milne operates with a remarkably low profile. Where others in the role of director of strategy and communication would be on the phone constantly, phoning or messaging, and chasing every query from journalists, Milne habitually replies to what (or who) he likes and leaves the rest.
His unusual style goes further: while he continues to brief the lobby – often directly contradicting lines put out on major shows by shadow cabinet ministers – he never does so by name, and often even rejects being cited as a spokesman, choosing instead to present his statements behind the heavy cover of a “Labour source”.
But despite this low-profile approach, Labour MPs, members, and journalists close to the party alike say Milne has grown a huge influence over Labour at a time when it could be just months from government, installing him in a key role in Number 10.
The situation seems typical of a man who has built a career in a consummately British way: an establishment anti-establishmentarian, a man known for his charm yet bitterly divisive among colleagues, and a man who could be among the most influential in the country on what happens next over Brexit.
Milne's background could hardly be more comfortably establishment: he is the son of former BBC director-general and went to public school – Winchester College – before studying PPE at Balliol College, Oxford, where his radical politics had already emerged. Having begun as a Maoist, Milne's politics shifted towards Stalinism, where some of his detractors suggest they've largely stayed.
Admirers of Milne talk of his charm, his commitment to often unpopular and unfashionable causes, and his rejection of both the establishment and the liberal establishment.
Critics point instead to what they call his apologia for dictators, his friendship with fringe figures on the left, and the fear he seems to provoke in some he deals with.
But neither ever calls him stupid: both groups agree Milne is a ferociously clever man, one who can pay attention to details, and one who is an effective 'operator' – able to get what he wants in organisations' internal politics, whether in newsrooms or in Westminster.
These traits certainly marked Milne's long career at the Guardian (disclosure: I overlapped with Milne for nearly five years at the newspaper, though we never directly worked together), where among other roles he served as a columnist, comment editor and associate editor, in a long and controversial tenure.
As comment editor, Milne ran an extract of an address by Osama bin Laden as an op-ed article, bylined in Bin Laden's name and put in a standard columnist's slot, three years after the 9/11 attacks – to huge internal and external controversy.
As associate editor, he attended the Valdai forum – a notorious 'discussion club' for those close to Vladimir Putin's administration – where he spoke with the Russian president on-stage.
This heightened already simmering tensions between Milne and his colleagues on the reporting side who covered Russia, eventually spilling over in heated debate at the paper's morning conference with senior correspondent Luke Harding, who had disagreed with Milne's assessment of Russia's actions in Ukraine.
As Milne's phone rang – his ringtone is a rap track relating to the USA prison base at Guantanamo Bay, which he always said he would not change until the base was closed – Harding quipped: “You should get that, it'll be the Kremlin.” Milne's furious reaction elevated the disagreement into a loud and very public row in the middle of the newsroom.
Such divisiveness did not harm Milne's influence at the newspaper, though. Milne was a powerful figure within the Guardian's union, while never actually taking the father of chapel (head of union) role himself, and had good relations with its senior managers.
Such was his sway that a colleague referred to him as effectively 'election agent and returning officer' for internal matters.
Milne would also show his external connections around the office, bringing in his close friend George Galloway – not a popular figure in the newsroom – for friendly (and very visible) chats and video interviews, and often striding in loops across the newsroom, phone always pressed to his ear, often slightly imitating the accent – sometimes slightly Arabic, sometimes Eastern European – of his conversant.
Such habits eventually earned him the muttered nickname of 'The Thin Controller', though likely not often to his face.
And then came the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the man who in 2015 who was still only known – to those few who had heard of him – as the token candidate of the hard-left for the Labour leadership, who few expected to get enough nominations to enter the vote, let alone to win it.
Milne's striding around the office intensified, and he made little secret from colleagues that he was all but openly lobbying MPs to put Corbyn onto the ballot paper, in the interests of fairness, after early indications suggested he was more popular with members than was expected.
Once again, in morning conference, Milne smiled when colleagues suggested Corbyn might just miss the shortlist – and assured them that he wouldn't. Milne, of course, was right – and soon after was working for Corbyn, initially under an internally-contentious deal which would allow him to return to the Guardian as associate editor if the role didn't pan out, a deal which was eventually terminated.
Given Milne's firebrand reputation as a columnist, several of the journalists in the lobby were pleasantly surprised by Milne himself, who would brief calmly and intelligently (when he didn't delegate the job), and who would often be charm itself to the journalists he chose to deal with.
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But inside the party – though he has vocal admirers – he is seen by some as a very different figure – as evidenced by his 'Corbyn's Beria' nickname.
For these critics, he is a feared figure who can help engineer deselections for disobedient MPs, and who can get opponents into line – as was (rightly or wrongly, without any public evidence) cited as the reason previously vocal anti-Brexit campaigner Andrew Adonis published a lengthy statement supporting Labour's equivocal public policy.
To many who meet him, there is steel behind Milne's charm – and they don't want to be seen to be crossing him. But, provided they can talk with the cover of anonymity, Labour's MPs are willing to admit they're worried. “The general view is he's regarded as Jeremy Corbyn's brain,” said one former senior Labour backbencher of the parliamentary Labour party's view of Milne. “He is widely detested and mistrusted. He and a few others in the leader's office are seen as calling the shots, his trusted inner circle from the Stop The War coalition, and the Press TV circuit, and Russia Today, who've come into the party with Corbyn.
“Seumas Milne has never had a Labour party history, never involved in any elected position, but was a Guardian journalist who wrote sympathetic columns about Putin, and pro-[Syrian dictator Bashar al-]Assad pieces, even as recently as 2015.
“There have been a number of occasions in the past where things have been put out from the leader's office that are contrary to the PLP view – particularly on foreign policy and Brexit. He's interested in foreign policy and an ideological view of the world.”
In a recent controversy, he was accused of suggesting complicity between Isis and Israel, after a video emerged of him speaking at a 2015 Stop the War conference. “One of my friends from Egypt raised the situation about the Isis franchise and its relationship to Israel,” he said.
“I think that's a very interesting phenomenon myself.” A Labour source denied he was suggesting collusion between Israel and Isis and said he was highlighting the imperial divide-and-rule tactics used by the US and its allies in the Middle East.
It is on Brexit, though, that internal Labour concerns, at least, become most visible, with even pro-Corbyn shadow cabinet ministers admitting there is an internal battle to shape Corbyn's policy on leaving the EU versus supporting a second referendum.
One noted that even traditionally Eurosceptic Corbyn allies in the shadow cabinet were coming round to the view that Brexit should be stopped – or at least taken back to the public – but that anything too pro-European said publicly would be swiftly rebutted by the leader's office.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes Milne is seen as a key figure in favour of leaving, his pro-Brexit credentials attributed to his views of the EU as a neo-liberal project which would act against the interests of a 'true' Labour government.
It is, of course, an open question as to how much influence a party chief of strategy and communications can have over their leader's policy. Alastair Campbell – who held that role for Tony Blair, and who is now a New European columnist among other roles – was often portrayed as a virtual puppet-master for Blair, a portrayal which always clearly irritated him and he denied.
But he does acknowledge the role has power, and wonders why for Milne and others it is barely now scrutinised.
“When I did that job, I couldn't fart without somebody being all over it in the media, and I was never doing anything other than my master's bidding, as it were, pursuing the policies of the party,” says Campbell.
“I do feel Milne is pursuing his own agenda, and is barely known.”
Asked why he believes Milne is willing and able to freelance in this way, Campbell cites Corbyn's grasp of policy detail as opening the space for Milne and for Corbyn's special political advisor (and former Stop The War chair) Andrew Murray to act.
“What power do you have if you're working for someone, well, the answer is a lot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were obsessed with detail… Corbyn is said to have next-to-no interest in the detail of policy. Milne has an interest. That means the Milnes and the Murrays can pick it up and take it where they want it to go…
“I'm not pretending I didn't have a significant position, but any power and authority I had came from the fact people know Tony Blair trusted me to do whatever he wanted. I didn't go rogue – I would never go out and say 'no, what Tony meant was this'. Milne is constantly re-briefing against Keir Starmer, or Emily Thornberry, or whoever else.”
If party concerns over Milne extend as far as Brexit, his foreign policy views and similar overseas friendships to those of his boss – often, in the eyes of critics, to anyone with an anti-US agenda – the broader establishment is more worried, still.
Like Corbyn, Milne has historically been far more engaged with foreign policy than the details of domestic life, which has left him with interesting friends.
Retired security figures have in multiple newspapers raised flags as to Milne's ties to radical figures connected to the Russian state, to Hamas and Hezbollah, and others – including Julian Assange (Disclosure: I also used to work with Julian Assange).
Milne was a stalwart supporter of Assange, who was recently arrested after nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, and within hours of that arrest senior Labour figures had put out statements of support for the controversial founder of WikiLeaks.
This drew muttered comment about Seumas Milne's influence – though Corbyn was also a public supporter of Assange in his own right, prior to taking over as leader – especially given Milne's connections to those in the organisation.
In a rare moment of public attention, Milne was pictured in the tabloids kissing and “nuzzling” with a “mystery blonde”. The woman was later revealed to be human rights lawyer Jen Robinson, a longtime Assange and WikiLeaks associate who is currently working as his lawyer.
Milne – who last year was reported to be divorcing his wife – did not comment on the incident at the time, while others dismissed it either as unsolicited or simply as a bit of fun. However, it apparently did not hurt the friendship between the two, who have been seen together socialising in London on multiple occasions since the photograph.
That association is just one of the simplest in a long line of potential headaches for those who may soon have to vet Milne for one of the most sensitive jobs in Number 10 – where former News of the World editor (convicted and jailed over phone hacking) Andy Coulson faced serious problems doing his job without top-secret security clearance, which he never reached.
Security officials fear Corbyn might simply just overrule his officials in favour of his key aide – a moment which, if their suspicions prove correct, would serve to prove his indispensability.
Whether he's Corbyn's Beria, Corbyn's brain, or merely just a talented advisor replied upon by his boss, Milne certainly has Westminster's attention – whether he likes it or not.