The leaked internal report into the Labour party’s handling of antisemitism has dragged up some extraordinary allegations about the behaviour of some of Labour’s staff during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, with the party having to open a formal inquiry into the document and its contents. Members and supporters are, understandably, furious about the suggestion that some staff, in key positions, not only did not support the new leadership but seemingly acted directly to undermine it.
I had direct experience of the efforts made to undermine Corbyn and John McDonnell by a small number of Labour party staff from 2015 to 2017, when I worked for McDonnell, then-shadow chancellor, as his economic advisor, a role I held for just over four years. What follows is based on my submission to Labour’s Forde Inquiry into the leaked Labour party report. If the Labour party is to ever win an election again, it is essential that the internal staff culture in which a small, unaccountable minority can systematically act against the elected leadership, in defiance of Labour’s members and supporters, is thoroughly exorcised.
What I saw whilst working for Labour took place over a longer time period than the “sabotage” that some have alleged during the 2017 general election campaign; it was a persistent, slow-burn attempt to undermine the elected leadership of the Labour party by a small (but influential) minority of its staff that began as soon as Corbyn entered office. The impact of this campaign against the leadership was cumulative, and there should be no serious doubt that it had an impact on the outcome of the 2017 general election. I am personally confident, given the closeness of the vote in 2017 – with an extraordinary surge in Labour’s support, and the resulting loss of the Conservative’s majority – that in the absence of a handful of well-placed party staff acting to undermine and weaken the elected Labour leadership over the preceding 18 months, Jeremy Corbyn would have been able to form at least a minority government in June 2017.
I can remember very well meeting McDonnell in one of parliament’s canteens, shortly after he’d been appointed shadow chancellor by Corbyn in September 2015, and him asking if I wanted to come and work as his advisor. Obviously I agreed: like many tens of thousands of others, I had spent an exhilarating summer seeing the campaign for Corbyn’s leadership building up to the extraordinary finale of his September 2015 victory. I was working as chief economist at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) at the time, and I’d spent years writing and arguing for alternatives to neoliberalism. I’d taught economics at various universities, and worked in policymaking across Whitehall and beyond, from the Treasury to the Royal Society. My professional and academic experience was typical of others who have done the same job, and I now wanted to put my skills and experience to use in trying to win a Labour government on a clear platform against austerity and neoliberalism. I handed my notice in at NEF and was all set to begin work as soon as practicable.
On the day that my contract with NEF ended, 29 October 2015, quite literally as I was clearing my desk and preparing to leave the office, I was contacted by a journalist from the Times who put a number of questions to me about my political activities over a decade ago. There’s no secret to my political background: in 2005, I was a member of the Socialist Workers’ party (SWP), throwing myself into the anti-Iraq war movement. I had campaigned against Labour in the general election that year because of this. I had left the SWP at the end of the 2000s, in the belief that it was a political dead-end – a belief I evidently still hold. This political history isn’t exactly unusual in the Labour party, whose ranks have always held any number of former members and supporters of other, smaller leftwing organisations, including former cabinet ministers in the last Labour government, and the current leader. No one can have a reasonable objection to letting people join the Labour party if they support its aims, critically including the election of a parliamentary Labour party, and there can be no reasonable objection to employing staff if they fulfil the requirements of the job and (for political advisors) can work effectively with ministers or shadow ministers.
I was clearly qualified for the job, and McDonnell wanted me to work for him, so I ticked both boxes. But instead of being able to start work, news of my employment was leaked, and a misleading account of my previous activities given to a journalist, which included the nonsensical claim later on that I worked as an “aide” to George Galloway. (I have scarcely met Galloway, let alone worked for him). This leaking is suspicious because there were a very limited number of places that news of my employment could have come from: plausibly, it can only have been leaked by Labour party staff. There’s no-one else who would have known about my appointment ahead of any announcement being made, and there was no-one else who knew about it who would also have opposed it. But this means that the leak came either directly from Labour HR, or from someone who Labour HR had informed. The leaking would appear to have been a deliberate and hostile act by someone inside the party, made with the intention of undermining the new shadow chancellor. The fact it came larded with claims about me that weren’t true – meaning it came from someone who presumably didn’t know me that well – also points back towards someone in Labour HQ.
Just prior to the Times report being published online on the evening of 29 October, news of my appointment appeared on Twitter. This provoked a predictable flurry of online interest but again suggests that at some point someone employed by the Labour party had leaked news of my imminent appointment, again with the intention of undermining the shadow chancellor. As a result of this minor furore, someone senior inside Labour told the same journalist that I would not now be employed by the Labour party. I was not told this myself – I heard the news via Twitter later the same day, ironically enough at my leaving drinks. As a result, I was left without any income for the next two months: I had left my old job but I was being denied a contract and payment for a new one. Again, the purpose of the hostile briefing to a journalist was to undermine decisions taken by the shadow chancellor (and, by extension, the elected leader of the Labour party) over his own staff appointments.
This was personally stressful, but it didn’t stop me working for the shadow chancellor – I was eventually seconded into McDonnell’s office from a trade union. Secondment from another organisation into a shadow minister’s office is a common practice, but, again, news of my secondment was leaked in hostile terms to the press, resulting in some tediously lurid media coverage. It is harder to isolate the source of the leaks on these occasions but the details of the terms of my employment are likely to have come from a Labour party staff member, although not one (this time) in possession of confidential information.
After a year of hassle and nonsense, I was eventually given a contract with the Labour party in November 2016 without any further problems. The situation in failing to simply employ me a year previously had been factionally motivated and nothing more.
Once I’d managed to get a desk and start work, I ran into the kinds of issues my old colleague Joe Ryle highlighted in his own Forde Inquiry submission. I know from experience that the great majority of Labour party staff were committed to doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, and to working loyally for the party, whoever the leader was. However, it seemed clear to me from October 2015 to the end of the 2017 general election campaign that there was a small but significant minority who were prepared to act otherwise. What we faced wasn’t usually outright sabotage, but the steady drip-drip-drip of small (and surely deliberate) failures that added up to major dysfunction.
I’ve worked in many different places, and all institutions have their share of idiosyncrasies and problems, but I’d never seen anything like what was happening inside Labour. The most basic functions of a political organisation were not operating as they should. A classic example was the extraordinarily lax pace at which press releases, having been signed off by the appropriate shadow minister, would be released by the party’s press team. In some cases they were delayed by hours – a critical problem if you’re trying to respond inside a notoriously fast news cycle. The result was an appearance of sloppiness and lack of attention in what we were doing – which was then blamed, entirely inaccurately, on the party leadership. From my memory, almost every press release we prepared in this period was subject to heavy delays, at least until after the general election. It was like an old-fashioned ‘go-slow’ in a trade union dispute, but in this case, directed against the elected party leadership and those appointed by it. Because this was more persistent, the go-slow was more serious than the rare occasions when I found someone directly trying to stop me doing my job – as happened, in one notorious instance recounted by another former colleague, on the morning of the Brexit referendum vote.
Then there was the sheer volume of leaks that took place. This was more of an issue in the leaders’ office, with confidential documents regularly making their way into the hands of eager journalists, but would happen everywhere from time to time. I was personally the victim of a fairly major leak of my emails on at least one occasion that I can remember. But the issue with leaks is not necessarily what is leaked, but that the possibility of a leak gets in the way of a frank discussion amongst staff. The fear of leaking completely erodes the trust that is essential to a properly functioning political operation. It made something as basic as emailing the leaders’ office, for example, a weirdly fraught process.
Misallocation of resources.
Finally, it was sometimes hard to know what Labour party staff were being employed for, or to whom they were working. This became particularly striking during the election campaign when I moved over to Labour’s HQ at Southside on Victoria Street. There were some glaring examples of this misdirection of staff time: producing a “policy document”, which was a significant piece of work intended to provide more information on the 2017 Manifesto for MPs, councillors, and campaigners, but which was instead closer to an alternative manifesto for the campaign. This meant resources that could have been used in supporting the actual manifesto, as expected by the elected party leadership, were directed elsewhere. This is absolutely not to blame those staff – the fault lies with their senior management who did not always appear to be acting under the direction of the political leadership of the Labour party. (That said, it’s certainly possible that a few people were working on different Labour leadership campaigns in the expectation of a heavy Labour defeat and Corbyn’s resignation.)
The impact of this factional and bureaucratic malignancy was cumulative, taking place over almost two years, and not just a problem during the 2017 election campaign. I don’t doubt we all made political mistakes over the 2015-17 period. But the groundbreaking campaign in the 2017 election and the clear, relatively focused manifesto took Labour the closest it has been to government for almost a decade. There are serious consequences not only for Labour, its members and its millions of voters but for British democracy in general if the party of the official opposition is not allowed to function properly. There is a great deal riding on the conclusions of the Forde Inquiry. But it is the betrayal of the hopes placed in Labour that most sticks in my throat.
James Meadway is an economist and Novara Media columnist.