The first week of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in September was reminiscent of a The Thick of It omnishambles. The Labour leader pulled out of scheduled media appearances, ran away from camera crews, was falsely accused of stealing sandwiches from war veterans and suffered the misfortune of having hacks eavesdrop his shadow cabinet deliberations.
Four months on and — although one could argue that his leadership remains chaotic — things have certainly improved. He now has a loyal team in place, his office is made up of a mix of those behind his leadership bid and trusted allies. Yet with a larger schism than ever existing between the PLP and the leader’s office, his closest allies are regarded with suspicion by many. So who are they — and how are they getting on?
Corbyn’s top team is made up of Seumas Milne, Kevin Slocombe, Anneliese Midgley and Simon Fletcher.
Kevin Slocombe — Head of Leader’s media
Slocombe was originally hired as Corbyn’s interim spokesman in September after the Labour leader experienced a difficult first week. At the time he received a somewhat hostile reception in Labour HQ, with many staff still mourning the departure of the popular Paddy Hennessy, who had been moved from deputy director of communications to Sadiq Khan’s mayoral team in order to prevent a clash with the Corbyn regime.
Slocombe was seen to have ‘hard-left’ credentials — and a skin-head look — as he had spent ten years working at the Communication Workers Union. A number of hastily deleted tweets insulting the Mainstream Media and Blairites who had criticised Corbyn only added to tensions.
However, sceptics have slowly been won over by Slocombe thanks to his sunny disposition and jovial manner — it was Slocombe who helped add some much-needed humour to the Christmas reshuffle shambles with talk of nonsense things like cauliflowers as he walked past story-hungry hacks. His friendly demeanor means that he is now widely regarded by the press as the ‘acceptable face’ of Team Corbyn. One lobby journalist says: ‘If there is an issue and you need to speak to someone, Kevin will always be the go to — not Seumas’.
As for allegations that Corbyn surrounds himself only with croissant-chewing members of the metropolitan elite, Slocombe is a working-class lad who only recently traded the West Country for the Westminster bubble.
Seumas Milne — Director of Strategy and Communications
The most notorious member of Corbyn’s inner sanctum, Milne has struggled to keep his name out of the news since he was appointed as Jezza’s right-hand man in October. The Guardian associate editor and columnist is on ‘indefinite leave’ from the paper while he runs Corbyn’s team. However, the Old Wykehamist’s transition from journalist to press man hasn’t been a smooth one. As his old columns — which show anti-West sentiments and raise questions over just how many deaths Stalin’s regime actually brought about — have been dug up by journalists, Milne’s relationship with the media has soured.
Distrustful of the lobby — as well as holding certain right-wing media outlets in contempt, Milne has more surprisingly taken issue with both the BBC and the Guardian, claiming their coverage is biased against Corbyn. Yet perhaps more worryingly, it’s his inexperience — or inability to get a grip on a growing scandal — that has so far marked his tenure.
Even former colleagues at the Guardian say they have been surprised by how shambolic operations have been, pointing to the fact he was always very organised at the paper. A divisive figure, ‘moderate’ Labour MPs have taken to referring to him as a ‘poundshop Mandelson’ behind his back — joking that for all his cunning he lacks the execution skills of the Prince of Darkness. The Mandelson jibe is perhaps misguided given that the pair struck up a close mutually beneficial briefing relationship when he was at the Guardian and Mandy was a New Labour mastermind.
It’s not all bad either. While Milne’s briefings have become the stuff of legend over his failure to shut down loaded questions or just shut up, his rambling essay-like answers means he rarely offers a soundbite that can be used to his disadvantage.
Milne is popular within the leader’s office, where he enjoys a good working relationship with his colleagues. He allies are very loyal, and claim he has been hard done by. ‘It’s very easy to blame everything on Seumas or think the worst of him but he is actually one of the most genuine people in there,’ one notes. ‘He cares about the underdog; at the Guardian he was the one journalists turned to when they were worried about redundancies or working conditions as he was always happy to fight the workers’ corner.’ They add that those who take issue with him had best suck it up as ‘he has Corbyn’s full support’.
Simon Fletcher — Chief of Staff
After putting in the hours over the summer as Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign director, Simon Fletcher was rewarded with the role of chief of staff. He has experience here, having done the same job — on a cool £120,000 — for Red Ken for eight years when he was Mayor of London. He’s also the only one to survive from the Miliband regime — working as the former Labour leader’s trade union liaison officer.
Despite his experience working in testing climates, life under Corbyn hasn’t been easy for Fletch. His one-time ally Neale Coleman stepped down as executive director of policy and rebuttal this month over a supposed rift with Milne. It was reported that Fletch, too, was struggling with Milne.
However, sources in Labour say that the reports are wrong and that Milne was not behind the departure — instead it was another member of Labour who led Coleman to quit. As for reports of a rift between Milne and Fletch, it would certainly mark a sea-change in their relationship. The pair are old friends going back 20 years, with Fletcher’s politics — he began his career working for Tony Benn — matching Milne’s.
Anneliese Midgley, deputy chief of staff
One of the geniuses behind Corbyn’s unpopular women-only train policy, Anneliese Midgley is another former employee of Ken Livingstone — working as his head of events when he was mayor. As well as working as the head of strategy at Unite, Midgley assisted on the unsuccessful campaign to elect Neil Findlay, the leftwing MSP, as leader of the Scottish Labour party over Blairite Jim Murphy.
Midgely is a firm favourite in Corbyn’s court and while others regard her views as ‘quite hard-on’ she is still fairly popular with the PLP.
On top of Corbyn’s core four, there are number of aides and advisors who play key roles — with mixed success.
Katy Clark — Political Secretary
After serving two terms as the Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arranformer, Katy Clark lost her seat in May. Since then she has remained close by Corbyn’s side, helping host events in Scotland with him as part of his leadership campaign.
An anti-war, anti-Trident female politician, it’s not all that surprising then that Corbyn has invited her into his inner circle in the role of political secretary. Alas, she may not be in the position for long. With Clark’s key jobs in the role to liaise with the PLP, manage political messages and maintain good relations with MPs, to say she is experiencing difficulties is an understatement. Half of the PLP don’t know who she is — despite her time as their colleague, and the other half don’t have much positive to say. ‘In the PLP, she can count her comrades on one hand,’ reports one. ‘Her appointment has left several noses out of joint.’ The leader’s office aren’t thought to be overjoyed with her efforts either.
She may soon have a way out. It’s thought Clark is on the top of Corbyn’s list when it comes to a safe seat or a by-election. Such manoeuvres recently led to an upset in Wales where rumours that she was being lining up to run in a by-election were branded a ‘stitch up’ by local party members.
Kat Fletcher — Events
Fletcher has been instrumental with Corbyn since before his leadership campaign began. Having met him when she moved to his Islington constituency several years ago, she worked as his agent during the General Election. Never doubting his leader potential, she placed a £20 bet on him to win the leadership when the odds were 100-1
She was previously President of the National Union of Students, where she earned a reputation for being a radical — even describing herself as ‘one of those lefty feminist sorts’. Her hard-left stance has been known to ruffle feathers in the Labour party — in 2004 she was elected to the role at the NUS after she took an anti-tuition fees approach and managed to defeat the Labour Students candidate in the process.
Andrew Fisher, political advisor
A friend of Corbyn’s for over 10 years, Fisher has proved a divisive figure for his uncompromising left views. His ill-judged approach to social media has led to animosity from the majority of Labour MPs after it emerged that he had tweeted his glee when Ed Balls lost his seat in the election. What’s worse, he was suspended over his tweets urging the public to vote for rival parties.
Fisher has since been welcomed back into the fold but tensions remain high. However, it is his head for figures and academic ability that make him a valuable asset to the team. His time working as a parliamentary researcher for Aslef, the FBU and the NUJ means that he can deliver the facts and statistics for the Corbyn team to back up its more pie-in-the-sky policies.
John McDonnell’s team
One of Corbyn’s oldest friends and allies, McDonnell was instrumental in Corbyn’s bid to become the leader of the Labour party. The two remain good friends to this day, with each turning out to support one another at events and the pair even shunning glitzy parties at Labour conference to enjoying a bromantic dinner at Jamie’s Italian. Relations between their offices have suffered though since Corbyn’s election.
Seb Corbyn, John McDonnell’s Chief of Staff
Corbyn’s son, Seb is a neutral go-between for the two camps. While he is a dedicated revolutionary, his gentle nature means he is well-liked — even if people can’t say the same about the company he keeps. ‘Seb is very much his father’s son,’ a friend notes.
James Mills, Media Advisor to John McDonnell
Although Mills works as McDonnell’s advisor, he has already made a name for himself in the leader’s office thanks to his supposed penchant for briefing. After there was much contradictory information briefed over Christmas about the impending ‘revenge reshuffle’, some of the blame was eventually placed in Mills’ direction. ‘James’s priorities are John, Labour and himself — not necessarily in that order,’ says one colleague. However, Mills’s friends claim his biggest sin is simply being better at the job that many of Corbyn’s aides.
Either way Mills may need to toe the line in future when it comes to the leader’s office. As while he has managed to keep his direct boss happy — with McDonnell holding him in high regard — there are certainly bridges to build with Corbyn’s team.
Steve Rotheram, Parliamentary Private Secretary
Steve Rotheram was appointed as Jeremy Corbyn’s chief aide in September when the move ruffled feathers. He became involved in an NEC row where the PLP voted to remove him from the NEC.
He remains an important Corbyn ally, taking on a hands-on role within the office, assisting with speech writing and — most importantly — helping to prep the Labour leader for PMQs.
Clive Lewis, shadow minister
One of the new wave of Corbynistas to be elected in the 2015 general election, few come more dedicated to Corbyn than Lewis. Thanks to his experience working for the BBC — and his loyalty — Lewis has become a valued member of Corbyn’s frontbench. He still, however, remains on the periphery and is not privy to the more private discussions in the Corbyn camp.
Cat Smith, shadow cabinet
Corbyn’s former researcher, Smith knows the Labour leader better than most. The shadow equalities minister regularly appears on television to offer the pro-Corbyn voice from within Labour. However, this is where her involvement now stops with the leader’s office, with Smith not heavily involved in day-to-day operations despite her close friendship with the Labour leader.
Livingstone likes to give the impression that he has a direct line to the leader’s office — and given that half of his former staff work there you could be forgiven for thinking that’s the case.
In reality, there has been a conscious effort to put some clear water between Corbyn and the gaffe-prone Livingstone. He has been quietly taken off of the defence review where he had been appointed as a co-chair, and members in Corbyn’s office insist that he is not privy to private discussions — much as he may try. But due to the weaknesses in the press operation, he has a habit of popping up in broadcast interviews when the party has failed to field a frontbencher.