In December, Novara Media revealed that a leading figure in the Keir Starmer campaign had extensive links to Owen Smith’s failed leadership bid in 2016. When asked if others from the Smith campaign were also involved in Starmer’s leadership tilt, the Westminster office of the Holborn and St Pancras MP did not respond.
Politically, links between Starmer and Smith matter. While keen to distance himself from the present leadership in certain aspects, Starmer has frequently stated that Labour’s break with austerity under Jeremy Corbyn was necessary. That resonates because while many members want the next leader to command support from across the party – the scale of December’s defeat making that clearer than ever – they also want a commitment to the present policy agenda. In the absence of clear signals in that regard, and with Starmer’s own voting record somewhat mixed – he abstained on the second reading of the 2015 Welfare Bill for example – assessing the credentials of the bookies favourite to succeed Corbyn is critical. That includes examining his inner circle.
The involvement of Alex Barros-Curtis revealed some continuity between Smith’s campaign in 2016 and Starmer’s now. But of course that could just have been one individual, and, besides, many feel that the party’s next leader needs a retinue which reflects the party more broadly. However it has now come to light that two other individuals close to Starmer also worked with Smith in 2016, calling into question the political priorities, and values, of the shadow Brexit secretary.
The first of these is Ben Nunn, a political advisor to Starmer and the deputy director of communications on Smith’s leadership campaign. Until a few weeks ago both positions were publicly disclosed on Nunn’s Linkedin page – which has since been deleted.
Prior to his time with Smith, Nunn held the position of political advisor to Heidi Alexander – the former Lewisham East MP who was shadow health secretary under Corbyn. Alexander was the first member of the shadow cabinet to resign as part of the 2016 ‘chicken coup’ after which she helped run Smith’s leadership campaign. That move gave Nunn the opportunity to enjoy a senior position in the ultimately doomed effort to defeat Corbyn internally.
Before his time in Westminster, Nunn worked for the healthcare lobbyist Incisive Health. Incisive was founded by Sarah Winston, Mike Birtwhistle and Bill Morgan – a former special advisor to then Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley. At Incisive’s launch in 2013 Birtwhistle explained the ethos of the new firm and the need, in the words of PR Week, for private interests to work harder and smarter to make [the NHS] adapt and change in a way that will help their businesses. Birtwhistle explicitly stated how Morgan’s proximity to Tory policy on healthcare was commercially advantageous, “Bill Morgan has been closely involved in the reforms of health and social care and so he has a good understanding of how the system should work”.
Following his stints with Alexander and Smith, Nunn returned to Incisive Health – only now he was promoted to the prestigious position of associate director. If you want a snapshot of how seamlessly lobbyists switch between party politics and client representation, often with competing interests, the story of Nunn is a good place to start. Advancing the interests of private corporations and assisting politicians in public service are rarely seen as being at odds. Indeed in the case of Incisive it was the basis of their business model.
Which explains why Nunn’s appointment by Alexander in 2016 raised eyebrows among NHS campaigners. One told Novara Media he was surprised by the move given the party was under ‘new management’ subsequent to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, “a shadow health secretary is supposed to be defending the NHS” he said, “and she was getting help from the people who were dismantling it”. But while that grated for many, the fact that Nunn now works for Starmer, whose portfolio is entirely unconnected to health, makes even less sense. “At least with Alexander you kind of understood – with Starmer I have no idea why an ex lobbyist is there” the campaigner added.
Another source said Nunn had voted for Liz Kendall in the 2015 leadership campaign, “it’s fine to vote for whoever… the best candidate won – but don’t tell me a lobbyist and Kendall supporter is now on the left,” they said.
Remarkably Nunn isn’t the only Starmer staffer to have worked on the Smith campaign. Another is Chris Ward, an advisor to the Holborn and St Pancras MP with extensive connections to the party’s right.
Before joining Starmer’s office in 2015, where he originally worked as office manager, Ward worked for Chris Leslie – who last year quit Labour to help found The Independent Group. Ward was a political advisor to the Nottingham MP during his brief stint as caretaker shadow chancellor – a tenure which saw Leslie, a landlord himself, attack rent controls. Prior to that Ward was deputy director at Westminster’s Parliamentary Research Service. There his immediate superior was Nicola Murphy, the PRS director, who is married to Leslie.
Both wife and husband have been key players in attacking the Labour leadership since 2015. In 2016, at the same time the coup against Corbyn was going into second gear, Murphy launched Labour Tomorrow. That raised a stunning £335,000 between July and September 2016, £114,000 of which was donated to another group, ‘Saving Labour’, which directly supported Owen Smith in challenging Corbyn for the leadership.
Even after Corbyn won a second successive time, Murphy and Leslie were still determined to alter the party’s position on Brexit, and allegedly tried to use Ward as an intermediary. “Murphy used to lobby Keir through Chris Ward for a change in Labour’s Brexit position” one source told Novara Media, “and I’d often see Keir and Leslie speak in PCH [Portcullis House]. I believe this contributed to the changed position [on Brexit]”. Another insider said, “both Ward and Nunn were big remainers – everyone knew that”.
Which perhaps explains the erratic positioning of Starmer on Brexit from 2016 all the way through to last September’s party conference. In a particularly extreme example, one source reported Starmer telling Labour conference in 2018 that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option”. Remarkably that position hadn’t been passed with the leader’s office and was entirely unexpected, “it was a big moment” said one individual then close to the leadership.
When Novara Media approached Chris Ward to ask whether an organisation similar to Labour Tomorrow would help fund Starmer’s campaign, he did not respond. When also asked whether Murphy exerted any personal influence on Starmer’s changing Brexit position in the two years after 2017, he also did not respond.
The extent of Starmer’s flip-flopping on a second referendum is hard to overstate. In 2016, when he backed Owen Smith ‘100%’, that included the Pontypridd MP’s calls to go back to the people. Yet by 2017 Starmer was telling journalist Owen Jones that Labour accepted the result of the referendum. A year later he unilaterally told Labour conference that remain was still an option before, in 2019, helping push Labour to a second referendum position and even trying to make it campaign for remain. The consensus among sources is that, had that happened, Labour’s defeat would have been even worse.
Would such flip-flopping, and on the biggest question of the day, be permissible for a candidate who was a woman? Indeed would anyone without Starmer’s distinguished CV be able to get away with it? Within days John McDonnell, another key architect in adopting a second referendum, appeared on national television accepting responsibly for a dire result – something we’ve yet to see from Starmer.
That the former director of public prosecutions moved instead to initiate a leadership campaign, surrounded by a team whose politics differ so markedly from that of the party’s membership and its recent manifestos, suggests opportunism rather than principle and long-term strategy. If that is the case, less than a month after a historic defeat, one should not presume Labour’s policy direction since 2015 will continue with Starmer at the helm.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.