Who Is ‘Starmtrooper’ Josh Simons?

Depends who you ask.

by Rivkah Brown

6 June 2024

Two images of a man in a suit against a red background, one blurred and one focused
Photo: Bronte Dow/Novara Media

Josh Simons has the kind of CV aspiring career politicians would kill for. Double first in politics at Cambridge, a quick stint in the Labour leader’s office, PhD in government at Harvard followed by a postdoc in “technology and democracy”, an important yet neglected book on AI, a smattering of civic engagement trusteeships and now, the top job at one of Britain’s most influential (and controversial) think tanks. Simons has the political trajectory – and self-possession – of someone in their 40s or 50s. He is 30 years old.

In May, Simons became one of the “Starmtroopers” being parachuted into constituencies as Starmer attempts to capitalise on his 26-point poll lead by ensuring maximal conformity from his projected 422 MPs. Others include We Believe In Israel’s Luke Akehurst and Simons’ former nemesis Christian Wakeford (Simons once eyed up Wakeford’s seat in Bury South, though aborted his candidacy after Wakeford defected to Labour).

Simons said he was “honoured to be selected” – there was no selection contest – to be Labour’s candidate for Makerfield in northwest England, a place with which he has no personal connection. The pleasure appears to be all his: “Makerfield constituents want a local candidate and have made that abundantly clear. Nothing else to say, bye bye,” deputy mayor of Wigan council Jenny Bullen told The Mill of Simons’ candidacy, before hanging up.

Luckily for Simons, locals’ disdain is unlikely to get in his way: Makerfield is among the safest Labour seats in the country. In just a few short weeks, one of the figures most instrumental to Starmer’s rise to power will step out from behind the curtain and take up his place in the Palace of Westminster.

Simons’ interest in politics is traceable to his Cambridge days, where he soon switched from philosophy to political science. After a gap year spent in India and France Simons arrived at St John’s College, known for its abundance of public schoolboys and “rugger buggers”. He wasn’t a great Johnian.

Simons had been to a private school – not a public school, an Eton or a Westminster, but the relatively average Perse School in Cambridge, where fees are a comparably modest £22,350/year (Eton Group schools charge around double that). He played rugby but was no rugby lad – in fact, one former friend remembers Simons castigating one of the college bruisers for his rape culture apologism (he later boasted of not belonging to any of Cambridge’s famously misogynistic drinking societies: “After some pretty boring swaps, on which I watched Jesus boys dribble into their plates trying to chat up my girlfriend, I decided I couldn’t be arsed”). He wore an earring – this was seen as edgy – and a leather T-birds jacket. He sought out friends similarly uncharmed by college life.

Simons was, though, supremely confident, borderline arrogant – less rugby lad than debate bro. Friends would get frustrated at how logically he’d conduct arguments, often neglecting the emotional content of the discussion. This tendency has more recently landed Simons in hot water: in February, he told LBC listeners he thought that smuggler gangs should be put on a barge and sent to Scotland: “You know, who cares?” he asked. He swiftly apologised, adding that he was “half Scottish”.

At university, Simons described himself as a Marxist, though his interest in politics remained mostly academic. Student politics, self-serious and parochial, held little appeal for him. Outside of his course, in which he excelled, graduating top of the year, Simons threw himself into the university newspapers, first as investigations editor at Varsity, then as editor of The Tab. It was there that I met him – and where he earned a reputation for ruthlessness.

One fellow student recalls Simons happening upon the same story as his Varsity counterpart, Amy Hawkins, now the Guardian’s senior China correspondent. The pair agreed the honourable thing would be to publish their pieces simultaneously. Simons reneged on the agreement and scooped Hawkins.

Speaking of his extra-curricular achievements, Simons’ former friend said: “It wasn’t sort of CV-ticking … he did genuinely like all that stuff. But I think he had one eye on other things … [he was] very, very ambitious.”

In the summer of 2013, Simons travelled to Israel and the West Bank – less because of any familial or religious connection to the place than out of political and journalistic curiosity (Simons, whose father is Jewish, had a bar mitzvah but was otherwise raised mostly secular).

Writing about the trip for the Huffington Post blog, Simons concluded that “fundamentalist religious lobbies” – both “methodical Zionist settlers” and “Islamic fundamentalists” – were exacerbating the conflict. A university friend of Simons said he returned convinced that “the state of Israel should not have been founded”. Simons’ politics on Israel appear to have shifted since then: he recently insisted that Labour ought to “confront” the student protesters demanding their universities divest from Israeli apartheid.

Patient zero.

Within a few months of graduating, Simons found himself in the office of the leader of the opposition (Loto), Jeremy Corbyn. Simons was one of two young people brought in by Neale Coleman, a former City Hall bureaucrat and then Corbyn’s director of policy. Simons’ cameo in Vice’s 2016 documentary about Corbyn is somewhat misleading: while he can be seen working closely with Corbyn’s communications director Seumas Milne on a speech Corbyn is due to give before parliament, Simons mostly worked with Coleman producing reports on various policy positions.

Two men hunch over a laptop screen
Jeremy Corbyn’s communications director Seumas Milne (left) appears with Simons in Vice’s 2016 documentary about Corbyn, June 2016. Vice News/YouTube

Simons was widely regarded as hard-working and polite, but struggled to fit in. Most people in Loto at the time had come directly from Corbyn’s campaign; they were committed to the Corbyn project, and several would stay until the bitter end. Simons, by contrast, seemed aloof. His colleagues struggled to discern his politics.

Returning from a meeting in Brussels, Corbyn’s communications director Seumas Milne gently attempted to draw Simons out. Any leftists in the family? No (his Mum is a Tory, his dad soft-right). Was he working for Jeremy out of some commitment to the left? Not at all, he said.

Meanwhile, Simons’ boss Coleman was suspected by Loto of not being aligned with the leadership politically, particularly on foreign policy. After falling out with Corbyn over his reshuffle – Coleman thought there should be no changes, while Corbyn wanted to bring in more leftists – Coleman resigned.

Without a mentor, Simons saw little way to rise up the ranks of the Labour party. He left soon afterwards – and within months became one of the first antisemitism whistleblowers of the Corbyn era.

Writing in the Observer, Simons insinuated – though avoided saying explicitly – that he’d left Loto because of anti-Jewish prejudice. “After six months working as a policy adviser for Jeremy Corbyn,” he wrote, “it was clear to me that the way Corbyn and those around him think about Jewish people is shaped by a frenetic anti-imperialism, focused on Israel and America.”

The explosive op-ed briefly made Simons the go-to source – sometimes named, sometimes anonymous – on Labour antisemitism. In his Observer op-ed and the pieces it prompted, Simons related a number of antisemitic altercations he’d had with Loto staff.

In one, an anonymous “friend” of Simons retold the story of his and Milne’s train conversation in a way that implied that Milne had sought to discern whether he was Jewish: “Milne … delivered a ‘rant’ about Israel before demanding to know the young aide’s views and quizzing him on his family background in an incident that made him feel deeply uncomfortable,” the friend told the Sunday Times.

Simons also claimed that Milne had attempted to remove a Hebrew phrase from Corbyn’s 2016 Passover message “for fear that Corbyn’s supporters might think the use of Hebrew ‘Zionist’”. Those present for the discussion about the message deny Milne said this – and note that the message was ultimately published in the Jewish News with the words “Chag Kasher Vesameach” (a kosher and happy holiday) in it.

Dave Rich, then deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, wrote in the New York Times that this was because “Mr Milne was overruled”. Yet as the senior comms official in Corbyn’s office, Milne had the final word on this and all statements from Loto (“Far from being overruled on its contents, it was Seumas Milne who signed off the full statement, as confirmed by the documentary record,” a party spokesperson told the Independent at the time). Emails seen by Novara Media indicate that Milne personally approved the wording of the message.

The real circumstances under which Simons left Loto paint him in a less flattering light.

Several of those with direct knowledge of Simons’ employment by Loto told Novara Media that he was removed for suspected leaking. Corbyn’s chief of staff Simon Fletcher arranged with Emilie Oldknow and Ian McNichol for a role to be created specifically for Simons in the London regional office – a significant demotion – and he took it. He stayed in Southside for a few months, then left. In the so-called chicken coup of 2016, in which Labour rightwinger Owen Smith tried and swiftly failed to oust Corbyn from the leadership, Simons supported Smith.

Simons did not, nor has he subsequently, raised a formal complaint to the Labour party about his treatment in Loto. He did, however, make a lengthy submission to Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into racism within Labour. He was displeased with its findings: Simons’ friend told the Sunday Times he was “bitterly disappointed” by Chakrabarti’s “whitewash”, and felt that his submission – which had alleged some of Corbyn’s team had “at least a blind spot with anti-semitism and at worst a wilful disregard for it” – had been ignored.

This would not be the first time Simons and the organisations he oversaw blamed antisemitism for less-than-upstanding behaviour. In March, “multiple well-placed sources” told the Telegraph that Morgan McSweeney, Simons’ predecessor at Labour Together, had failed to declare £739,000 in donations not because of “administrative oversight”, as the organisation had originally claimed, but for fear of exposing its Jewish donors.

Sir Trevor Chinn, the Jewish donor presumably alluded to by the Telegraph’s sources, donated only £175,500 to Labour Together during this period. Its biggest donor by far was hedge fund manager Martin Taylor, who is not Jewish.

Simons wasn’t working for Labour Together at this time, or indeed in the UK at all. Shortly after he left the Labour party he began a PhD at Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he met his wife and now mother of his young daughter. He returned to the UK just as the Corbyn project was collapsing in 2019. He worked for the Civic Power Fund (CPF), where his gift for fundraising huge sums turned the organisation from a small grassroots collective to a professional outfit with two staff and around £150,000 in the bank.

Yet as talented as he was at connecting with communities, CPF’s aims – to transfer power away from political parties and into the hands of local people – diverged from Simons’, who by this point had his sights firmly set on Westminster. In 2021, he briefly threw his hat in the ring for Labour in Bury South – when that failed, he went into the more amorphous world of Labour pressure groups.

A narrow church.

By the time Simons joined Labour Together in 2022, it was unrecognisable from the organisation Blue Labourite John Clarke had founded seven years earlier. Then called Common Good Labour, the organisation was originally intended to unite factions within the party through internal forums and policy papers designed to find issues on which members could agree. Among the authors of Labour Together’s 154-page “review” of Labour’s 2019 election defeat are several luminaries of the Corbyn project, including ex-John McDonnell advisor James Meadway and then-journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan.

This ecumenical approach was perhaps strategic: though it may have initially convinced a few leftists, including ex-Momentum national coordinator Laura Parker, Labour Together was always the brainchild of the party right – and under a leftwing leadership, it was in the right’s interest to encourage a “broad church”. After Starmer got elected in January 2020, the organisation’s focus dramatically narrowed.

The turning point for Labour Together came after Simons came in as director. Within a few months, Simons relaunched the group as a “political think tank”, focused less on bridge-building than on developing a policy base for a future centre-right Labour government. Co-founders Jon Cruddas, Lisa Nandy and Steve Reed all quit, as did former acting director Hannah O’Rourke.

A year later and Labour Together is now a force transforming politics – though nobody can say exactly what it is, least of all Simons.

“We are a political think-tank,” he told the Financial Times in May, adding somewhat confusingly: “and I don’t think there is really any organisation like us. We are not a charity and we are explicit about who we want to win.” Most media outlets go with “think tank”, but it’s clear there’s only been one thought driving Labour Together for some time: getting Keir Starmer elected.

The National journalist James Walker has suggested that Labour Together would more accurately be described as something resembling a US Super Pac (political action committee), donation vehicles that allow candidates and parties to bypass electoral spending laws. Walker made the comparison after he revealed that Labour Together had received £1.92m so far this year, 56.5% of all political donations declared to the Electoral Commission and around a quarter of what the Labour party itself raised in the entirety of 2023 (£8.7m).

Having started as a nominal forum for party bridge-building, Labour Together has effectively become a secondary vehicle for receiving donations to the Labour party (by contrast, the organisation raised £295,000 in the entirety of 2019).

Once a “critical friend” to the Labour right, Labour Together has now repositioned itself as the provisional wing of Starmerism, even rewriting history to demonstrate its loyalty to the leader: Labour Together’s website claims that “it united the party behind Keir Starmer’s leadership” when at the time, Lisa Nandy, one of Starmer’s leadership rivals, was on the organisation’s advisory board.

Labour Together mostly funnels the huge sums it raises for Starmer into the Labour right in the form of staff (“Talent is everything in politics and talent costs money,” Simons said in a recent interview with the New Statesman). The offices of people like Wes Streeting, Rachel Reeves and David Lammy have all swelled with Labour Together hires, many on better salaries than the Labour party’s internal pay structures allow. Labour Together has also established the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), headed up by former Labour spin doctor Imran Ahmed and focused largely on exposing antisemitism within the Corbyn left; CCDH led the campaign that led to major layoffs at pro-Corbyn blog The Canary.

Simons has now been rewarded for his loyalty with an all-but-guaranteed seat in the Commons. One Labour activist who was involved with Labour Together for several years told Novara Media they felt that was Simons’ intention from the outset.

“Everything that [Simons] has done since he came into Labour Together to my mind lines up with just lining up for a seat [in parliament] rather than trying to kind of drive any change,” they said.

“It feels to me like all they’ve [Labour Together] actually done is basically try to say stuff that they thought the leadership was already saying and thinking … [to] position themselves as pulling in exactly the same direction, so that they can all be insiders and get jobs, because otherwise they would actually be doing some criticising.

Josh Simons did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment.

It’s no surprise that Simons – a sharp-suited realpolitician – found himself at a professional dead-end in Corbyn’s Labour. It’s even less surprising that he has climbed rapidly through its ranks under Starmer. The two men have strikingly similar profiles. Both sharp intellects and professional over-achievers, they began working for Labour in the same year. Both worked under Jeremy Corbyn and later turned against him. Both saw their youthful socialism give way to a mature moderate, anti-visionary politics (“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Simons wrote for LabourList, “Red Wall voters are not clamouring for Labour’s ‘vision’”). Both have played a long game, holding their noses to ride Corbyn’s coattails until their moment came.

Simons makes no secret of his political fickleness: “I’m not going to die on a hill for the Labour party,” he recently said. “If the Labour party goes mad, does what it did again, drifts from my values – I will ditch the Labour party.” But what are Simons’ values? His career gives few clues, though one thing is clear: he is intensely ambitious. And if it’s power hunger that drives Simons, he’s just in time: the feasting is about to begin.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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