‘It’s going to be a long night’ – How Members of Labour’s Senior Management Team Campaigned to Lose

by Aaron Bastani

@AaronBastani
12 April 2020
  • Estimated read time: 12 mins

A leaked report, seen by Novara Media, reveals the extent to which senior Labour figures sought to undermine their own party’s chances in the 2017 general election.

The product of an extensive internal investigation, the report contains hundreds of pages of evidence, including WhatsApp messages and emails, implicating members of the party’s ‘senior management team’ (SMT), including the former general secretary Iain McNicol. 

The following conversations, which took place from 13 January 2017 to the week after the election result that June, depict a disloyal, dysfunctional culture at the top of the party – one which held Labour’s twice elected leadership, party members, and any MPs they disagreed with, in contempt. Far from a few ‘bad apples’ the messages expose systematic and sustained efforts to undermine the leadership by multiple figures in director-level positions.

For many what will make this material all the more appalling is that Labour was less than 2,500 votes away from forming a government in 2017, after winning 40% of the popular vote – the party’s best results since 1997.

Below is a conversation that took place on 13 January, after Tristram Hunt – Labour MP for Stoke Central – announced his resignation, triggering a by-election. Revealed here is how, less than six months after Jeremy Corbyn had won the party’s leadership for the second time in a row, members of the SMT remained intent on his removal.

It offers a glimpse of the hostile and coordinated attacks the party leadership was subjected to from senior, unelected members of the party’s bureaucracy.

13/01/2017, 17:31 – Julie Lawrence [then director of the general secretary’s office]: I may be jumping the gun here, and JC is a proud and selfish man with a team to match, but if we lose these elections [Stoke and Copeland] we could have another leadership election. We should set up at some stage a discrete WG [working group] to go over rules, timetable scenarios and staff servicing the process. Just so we’re prepared. Like Operation Cake.

13/01/2017, 17:32 – Patrick Heneghan [then executive director]: Hope…

13/01/2017, 17:32 – Julie Lawrence: Yeah

13/01/2017, 17:32 – Iain McNicol [then general secretary]: OK Julie can you pull together. Operation Cupcake

13/01/2017, 17:32 – Julie Lawrence: Yep

13/01/2017, 17:33 – Emilie Oldknow [then executive director for governance, membership and party services]: Iain and I spoke to TW [Tom Watson] about this

13/01/2017, 17:33 – Julie Lawrence: 👌

13/01/2017, 17:33 – Patrick Heneghan: What does that mean

13/01/2017, 17:34 – Emilie Oldknow: It means Iain told TW to prepare for being interim leader.

Here an executive director, Heneghan, explicitly states that he hopes Labour lose both by-elections, while Oldknow and McNicol make clear that the deputy leader of the party at the time, Tom Watson, was involved in plans to replace Corbyn.

The subsequent by-elections were a mixed bag however: Labour kept Stoke Central but lost Copeland meaning that, while weakened, Corbyn remained strong enough to stay on as leader.

On 18 April,  prime minister Theresa May called a snap general election. With Labour well behind in the polls the SMT decided early on to ‘throw cash’ at Watson’s seat of West Bromwich East (which he would keep with 58% of the vote that June):

22/04/2017, 22:44 – Patrick Heneghan: Ok. But we need to throw cash at Tom’s seat

22/04/2017, 22:44 – Patrick Heneghan: Even if just 50k for that

22/04/2017, 22:44 – Emilie Oldknow: We should do this

22/04/2017, 22:46 – Patrick Heneghan: We can’t let him lose for want of money

22/04/2017, 22:46 – Patrick Heneghan: We’re in meltdown

22/04/2017, 22:46 – Patrick Heneghan: 25 points down and they’ve not started on us

22/04/2017, 22:48 – Iain McNicol: Lets talk monday. Am off to bed. But obviously protect toms seat.

According to the report, the SMT went so far as to assign significant resources to a “secret key seats team” in May 2017, without the knowledge of Corbyn or his office (LOTO). Permanently based in a separate building, Ergon House, and “all secret to LOTO”, the team worked to protect MPs, including Watson, who were factionally aligned with the SMT – diverting funds away from marginals.

By early May, as it become clear that Labour was at least closing the gap on the Tories, though still well behind, senior staff members mocked those working for a Labour victory:

11/05/2017, 15:55 – Sarah Mulholland [then parliamentary Labour party – PLP – secretary]: The kitchen are whooping and cheering Jeremy’s words to the nation.

11/05/2017, 15:57 – Julie Lawrence: Shut the front door 😁

11/05/2017, 16:08 – Tracey Allen [executive assistant/office manager, general secretary’s office]: Aaah they should make the most of it. 28 days and they’ll be ashen and in tears 😂

Rather than idle words this eagerness to embrace defeat as a means to change leader, rather than to actually win the election, was reflected in concrete steps being taken.

Three days later, on 14 May, then director of the governance and legal unit (GLU) John Stolliday, saved a series of documents outlining procedures, codes of conduct and staff purdah rules for a “Labour leadership election 2017”. This included a timeline under a column labelled ‘quickest’, with the process for a new party leader beginning on 12 June 2017 and the result being announced on 19 August 2017.

Stolliday, now head of Unison’s ‘member liaison unit’, having previously been at the People’s Vote Campaign, would save a separate document, titled ‘Electoral College Rule Change’, less than two weeks later. This document proposed to replace Labour’s ‘one member, one vote system’, which had seen Corbyn win the leadership twice, with the electoral college that existed before 2013. The plan, then, wasn’t simply to change leader, but also the rules by which Corbyn’s successor would be chosen.

A focus on events after the election result, as opposed to trying to win it, was compounded by senior members of management who appeared to relish imminent defeat. That is reflected in the following messages between Neil Fleming, regional director for Greater London, and Patrick Heneghan – executive director for elections, campaigns and organisation.

19/05/2017, 23:43 – Neil Fleming: Just seen Nia [Griffith] iv [interview]. What a bloody hero. She doesn’t bullshit and she’s just just stabbed corbyn and thornberry.

19/05/2017, 23:45 – Patrick Heneghan: Yes she did

19/05/2017, 23:46 – Neil Fleming: Thornberry is awful. She should pay in the reckoning.

This dialogue reveals two things. Firstly the kind of inappropriate and sinister language frequently used by senior staff to talk about the party leader – but also how such enmity extended beyond Corbyn to anyone who was perceived to be trying to help him become prime minister – in this case Emily Thornberry MP.

The following day, on 20 May, Jeremy Corbyn met a rapturous welcome at Tranmere’s Prenton Park. It was here where ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ was sung to the tune of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army for the first time, in response to the party rising in the polls and an increasingly popular leader. The response by those at party HQ was hostile and negative:

20/05/2017, 19:59 – Julie Lawrence:

https://twitter.com/DavidPrescott/status/866001515382702080

20/05/2017, 20:08 – Tracey Allen: OMG I think this is what is making me feel ill!!!

20/05/2017, 20:13 – Neil Fleming: Has everyone in the north west gone a bit loopy Anna??

Concern for Labour’s success only grew. By 26 May, as Labour’s rise continued, Francis Grove-White – the party’s international policy officer – and Jo Greening, an international affairs advisor, discussed how a YouGov poll showing Labour on 36% made them feel “sick”. 

Francis Grove-White 09:11: I actually felt quite sick when I saw that YouGov poll last night.

Jo Greening 09:12: no its great

Francis Grove-White 09:12: Not that I think we will end up there or probably anywhere near.

Jo Greening 09:12: and I shall tell you why, it is a peak and the polling was done after the Manchester attack so with a bit of luck this speech will show a clear polling decline
and we shall all be able to point to how disgusting they truly are(now obviously we know it was never real – but that isnt the point in politics!)

Francis Grove-White 09:13: Yeah I’m sure that’s right

Francis Grove-White 09:16:My fears are that: a) the speech won’t go down as badly as it deserves to thanks to the large groundswell of ill-informed opposition to all western interventions. And b) they will use that poll to claim they were on course to win and then Manchester happened. And whether or not JC goes, lots of the membership will buy that argument

Such pessimism regarding Labour’s surprise buoyancy in national polling wasn’t confined to Greening and Grove-White. On 31 May, as the election looked increasingly tight, new polls suggested a hung parliament, or even a Labour government. Yet even now senior members of staff appeared to prefer those polls that continued to predict a Conservative victory:

31/05/2017, 16:47 – Patrick Heneghan: Westminster voting intention:

CON: 43% (+1) LAB: 33% (-1) LDEM: 11% (+2) UKIP: 4% (-) GRN: 3% (-1)

(via TNS_UK / 25 – 30 May)

31/05/2017, 16:49 – Neil Fleming: Always loved TNS. Gold Standard.

The following day even party general secretary Iain McNicol mocked the possibility of Corbyn becoming prime minister.

01/06/2017, 21:01 – Patrick Heneghan: Take a look at @jon_trickett’s Tweet: https://twitter.com/jon_trickett/status/870343944596574209?s=08

01/06/2017, 21:04 – Tracey Allen: What!!!!

01/06/2017, 21:06 – Julie Lawrence: Ich bin ein Trot!

01/06/2017, 21:06 – Iain McNicol: I am a Corbyn

01/06/2017, 21:07 – Iain McNicol: That doesn’t make sense

01/06/2017, 21:07 – Tracey Allen: I am a hamburger

01/06/2017, 21:07 – Iain McNicol: I am a trot

01/06/2017, 21:07 – Iain McNicol: That makes complete sense

01/06/2017, 21:08 – Iain McNicol: Ich bin prime minister

01/06/2017, 21:09 – Julie Lawrence: 😱

01/06/2017, 21:11 – Tracey Allen: I am getting seriously weirded out by all this PM talk. I don’t think I can cope with the idea. 6 more bloody days is too long.

The following day, as one poll put Labour on 40%:

02/06/2017, 11:46 – Patrick Heneghan: Take a look at @britainelects’s Tweet: https://twitter.com/britainelects/status/870592083060543488?s=08

02/06/2017, 11:48 – Neil Fleming: Wowser

02/06/2017, 12:11 – Julie Lawrence: Nooo, really?

Less than a week before polling day, Survation cut the Conservative lead to just one point, while another pollster, ORB, had the Tories nine points ahead. Naturally Labour’s senior team viewed the worst poll as good news.

03/06/2017, 20:50 – Patrick Heneghan: Westminster voting intention:

CON: 40% (-6) LAB: 39% (+5) LDEM: 8% (-) UKIP: 5% (+2)

(via @Survation / 03 Jun)

03/06/2017, 20:50 – Neil Fleming: 😱

03/06/2017, 20:54 – Neil Fleming: Wtf is going on. Polling industry may as well fold up.

03/06/2017, 20:54 – Tracey Allen: It is doing my head in.

03/06/2017, 21:02 – Julie Lawrence: 😳

03/06/2017, 21:04 – Tracey Allen: Long 5 days to go

03/06/2017, 21:12 – Patrick Heneghan: Westminster voting intention:

CON: 45% (+1) LAB: 36% (-2) LDEM: 8% (+1) UKIP: 4% (-1)

(via ORB / 31 May – 01 Jun)

03/06/2017, 21:13 – Neil Fleming: Good old ORB

While senior staff admitted to hoping the most pessimistic polls were correct, Greg Cook, head of political strategy, on 4 June went further still, saying he hoped the “sheer hypocrisy” of a speech by Jeremy Corbyn would make other views of his “a legitimate topic” for attack, referring to Corbyn as “a lying little toerag”.

04/06/2017, 21:01 – Greg Cook: Hopefully the sheer hypocrisy of that speech will make his views on STK and abolishing the army a legitimate topic.

04/06/2017, 21:20 – Patrick Heneghan: Take a look at @jon_trickett’s Tweet: https://twitter.com/jon_trickett/status/871433303794089985?s=08

04/06/2017, 21:42 – Greg Cook: Absolutely right. It shows in detail what a lying little toerag he is.

These could almost be Tory spin doctors’ contriving lines of attack – but instead they came from Labour’s head of political strategy and executive director for elections, campaigns and organisation.

In keeping with the prevailing attitudes of his colleagues, Neil Fleming, the party’s head of press and broadcasting, celebrated a weaker poll for the party the day before the election.

07/06/2017, 18:01 – Patrick Heneghan: Westminster voting intention:

CON: 46% (+1) LAB: 34% (-) LDEM: 7% (-1) UKIP: 5% (-) GRN: 2% (-1)

(via @ICMResearch / 06 – 07 Jun)

07/06/2017, 18:02 – Neil Fleming: Boom

That same day, when discussing the well-attended final rally of the campaign – in the Union Chapel in Islington – staff joked about violence being used against Labour MPs, members and supporters.

07/06/2017, 22:02 – Carol Linforth (Head of party events): We got v close to the police stopping the event. There 4 police swots here.

07/06/2017, 22:03 – Carol Linforth: <Media omitted>

07/06/2017, 22:03 – Patrick Heneghan: Omg

07/06/2017, 22:03 – Julie Lawrence: Blimey.

07/06/2017, 22:03 – John Stolliday: Truncheons out lads, let’s knock some trots.

07/06/2017, 22:04 – Patrick Heneghan: Water cannons please.

On polling day, as party staff, MPs, members and supporters were getting the vote out across the country, rather than focus on doing likewise, senior staff were joking about the following day’s drinking session.

08/06/2017, 12:19 – Patrick Heneghan: We’ve got old star upstairs booked for tomorrow from 3ish

08/06/2017, 12:21 – Neil Fleming: Loto/Number 10 invited? 😂

08/06/2017, 12:21 – Patrick Heneghan: No.

08/06/2017, 12:22 – Neil Fleming: Hahahaha.

Humour would soon turn to sadness, however, and when the exit poll came in at 10pm, predicting a hung parliament, much of the senior staff at Southside, Labour’s headquarters, were in a state of shock with the director of the general secretary’s office offering a ‘safe space’ in Iain McNicol’s office.

08/06/2017, 22:24 – Julie Lawrence: Patrick if anyone in war room needs some safe space time they can come to gso .

08/06/2017, 22:25 – Tracey Allen: More like in need of counselling!

08/06/2017, 22:41 – Emilie Oldknow: What’s the atmosphere like there?

08/06/2017, 22:41 – Simon Mills: Depends which side of the building!

08/06/2017, 22:41 – Patrick Heneghan: Awful

08/06/2017, 22:41 – Patrick Heneghan: Help

08/06/2017, 22:42 – Simon Mills: Split between euphoria and shock

08/06/2017, 22:42 – Julie Lawrence: We are stunned and reeling.

08/06/2017, 22:45 – Tracey Allen: They are cheering and we are silent and grey faced. Opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years!! 😞

08/06/2017, 22:46 – Emilie Oldknow: We have to be upbeat

08/06/2017, 22:46 – Emilie Oldknow: And not show it

08/06/2017, 22:47 – Emilie Oldknow: And at least we have loads of money now…

08/06/2017, 22:47 – Julie Lawrence: Not if we go into coalition and lose short money

08/06/2017, 22:47 – Julie Lawrence: “Steve” walking the floor

08/06/2017, 22:48 – Emilie Oldknow: Oh no

08/06/2017, 22:48 – Patrick Heneghan: Everyone needs to smile

08/06/2017, 22:48 – Patrick Heneghan: I’m going into room of death

08/06/2017, 22:48 – Emilie Oldknow: Everyone needs to be very up beat

08/06/2017, 22:48 – Julie Lawrence: Its hard but yes

08/06/2017, 22:52 – Iain McNicol: I’m not in smiling and mixing and doing the 2nd floor.

08/06/2017, 22:53 – Iain McNicol: Everyone else needs to do the same.

08/06/2017, 22:53 – Iain McNicol: It is going to be a long night.

“It’s going to be a long night” was the reaction of the party’s general secretary, after Labour had deprived the Tories of a governing majority and seen their highest share of the popular vote in twenty years. While an outrageous comment, given McNicol’s elevated status within the party, it is perhaps outdone by Julie Lawrence – former director of the general secretary’s office – who appears to have actively feared Labour entering government. Meanwhile, Emily Oldknow, now assistant General Secretary at UNISON, apparently saw a silver lining, saying: “at least we have loads of money now”.

Results continued to come in throughout the night, and with Labour making gains across the country, staff commented that “one highlight” would be Rhea Wolfson – a member of the NEC and Corbyn supporter – winning the Scottish seat of Livingston so she would be “off the NEC”.

09/06/2017, 00:07 – Sarah Mulholland: Scottish friends at the count say Rhea Wolfson doing well on samples…

09/06/2017, 00:07 – Emilie Oldknow: Brilliant

09/06/2017, 00:08 – Emilie Oldknow: Gets her off the NEC

09/06/2017, 00:09 – John Stolliday: Eddie Izzard on

09/06/2017, 00:09 – Julie Lawrence: One highlight

09/06/2017, 00:09 – John Stolliday: If Ellie Reeves wins as well

09/06/2017, 00:11 – Fiona Stanton (Senior Regional Director): Emily thornberry is sooo horrendous

Even as Labour appeared set to stop the Tory’s ‘dementia tax’, and potentially even form a government, the priority was gaining seats on the party’s national executive committee, evidence of how insular and factional Labour’s senior team was. 

The following morning, as the scale of Labour’s push across the country became clear, senior staff continued to express outright dismay – in addition to making concerning comments about ‘our loses’ which imply the SMT had a list of candidates it had agreed to support above others.

09/06/2017, 10:44 – Tracey Allen: We will have to suck this up. The people have spoken. Bastards

09/06/2017, 12:59 – Sarah Mulholland: What were our loses again – Winnick, Meale, Flello and Engel. Was there another I’ve missed?

09/06/2017, 13:00 – Greg Cook: No, the other losses were Copeland and Blenkinsopp’s seat

09/06/2017, 13:01 – Sarah Mulholland: 👍

09/06/2017, 13:01 – Sarah Mulholland: Thanks Greg

09/06/2017, 13:16 – Tracey Allen: We have a letter ready to go to them on Monday Iain

09/06/2017, 13:30 – Sarah Mulholland: Kensington and Chelsea? I’ve just woken up and confused by Twitter. Did we gain it???

09/06/2017, 13:30 – Patrick Heneghan: Count again at 6pm

09/06/2017, 13:31 – Sarah Mulholland: Omg. That Emma Coad is a grade 1 tool.

Sarah Mulholland, then director of political services for the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) – and today head of policy for the Northern Powerhouse Partnership – was dismayed Labour had gained a seat it had never held before. The invective expressed here is seen throughout other emails, including where she hopes a young Labour activist, whose mental health problems are well documented, “dies in a fire”, and how she “wishes there was a petrol can emoji”. Elsewhere she wrote how Diane Abbott “literally makes me sick”. 

After the next PLP meeting, where many MPs expressed support for Jeremy Corbyn following a positive election result, Oldknow described MPs including Yvette Cooper as “grovelling” and “embarrassing”.

13/06/2017, 18:54 – Emilie Oldknow: Loads of unity

13/06/2017, 18:55 – Emilie Oldknow: It’s really embarrassing seeing all these people grovel

13/06/2017, 18:56 – Emilie Oldknow: Saying how he was brilliant

13/06/2017, 18:56 – Julie Lawrence: Oh god

13/06/2017, 18:59 – Julie Lawrence: Iain, understand Andy Kerr is calling you after 7. He’s on hols but he texted to say fine about the review. So will send email out tomorrow morning.

13/06/2017, 18:59 – Emilie Oldknow: That sounds fine then

13/06/2017, 18:59 – Julie Lawrence: 👍

13/06/2017, 19:00 – Julie Lawrence: Also Ann B in tomorrow for a property meeting so no doubt will be round GLU/GSO for catch up

13/06/2017, 19:01 – Tracey Allen: Grovelling. This is what we have been reduced to 😩

13/06/2017, 19:02 – Emilie Oldknow: Angela Smith talked about how amazing the regional office was and they wouldn’t have done it without them

13/06/2017, 19:05 – Patrick Heneghan: Did Mike A speak?

13/06/2017, 19:08 – Emilie Oldknow: No

13/06/2017, 19:08 – Emilie Oldknow: Yvette. Grovelling

On 15 June, a week after polling day, senior staff were still sharing their negative feelings about the result.

15/06/2017, 22:08 – John Stolliday: A week since that exit poll…

15/06/2017, 22:08 – Julie Lawrence: Post traumatic stress.

Less than a year later, with Corbyn’s leadership firmly established, Iain McNicol was replaced as party general secretary by Jennie Formby – who took on the role that April. Within a few months figures like Oldknow, Stolliday and Heneghan would leave, while Fleming announced his departure in March alongside McNicol staffers like Tracey Allen and Julie Lawrence.

Unsurprisingly this was briefed to Kevin Schofield, a mouthpiece for the party’s right, as an ‘exodus’. Ironically Stolliday claimed that Labour must decide whether it wants to be a party of protest or government on his departure – although given his conduct less than a year earlier that would appear to be a more pertinent question for him.

These revelations should end any debate around whether Labour’s senior management team, including McNicol, were serious about a Labour government in 2017. To the contrary what this stunning cache of documents reveals is how McNicol – and a tight, unelected circle around him – made every effort to undermine and denigrate that year’s election campaign, frequently stating how they hoped it would fail while simultaneously planning to replace Jeremy Corbyn from as early as January.

The most senior individuals named in this article were all approached for comment, none responded.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

Published 12 April 2020

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