POLITICS

Jeremy Corbyn Facing An 'Exodus' Of Staff From His Leadership Team, Insiders Say

But allies deny problems and blame usual staff 'churn' and health issues

24/03/2017 07:30 GMT | Updated 24/03/2017 20:16 GMT
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn is facing an “exodus” of staff from his top team, with trade union, press and communities specialists all quitting, HuffPost UK has been told.

Nancy Platts, the trade union liaison manager in the Labour leader’s office, has handed in her notice after nearly 18 months in post.

Matt Zarb-Cousin, media spokesperson for Corbyn, and Jayne Fisher, in charge of contacts with community and minority ethnic groups, will also be leaving.

Their departures come just days after the leader’s head of economic policy, Mike Hatchett, resigned to join the Government’s Brexit department.

Former chief of staff and campaigns director Simon Fletcher also quit last month amid concerns about a lack of direction and overall competence in Corbyn’s office.

In another shake-up, HuffPost can reveal that David Prescott has moved from the leader’s office, amid claims that he had trouble “finding Jeremy’s authentic voice” in helping with speechwriting.

David Prescott
David Prescott

Prescott, whose speech duties will pass to policy chief Andrew Fisher and communications and strategy director Seumas Milne, is being moved instead to do media relations for the Shadow Cabinet and the leader’s office.

With Labour’s poll ratings at record lows behind the Tories, and the party still reeling from its defeat to the Conservatives in the Copeland by-election, many MPs believe Corbyn and his team are unable to turn round its fortunes in time for a general election. 

One party insider said that several members of staff had found it difficult to work for Karie Murphy, the former Unite official who has increasing power as the director of Corbyn’s office and is his chief of staff in all but name.

Allies of Corbyn rejected such claims and denied that there was any systemic problem with the leadership staff team.

They added that Zarb-Cousin and Fisher were resigning on health grounds, even though the former will return to his job for an anti-gambling campaign.

Platts, in charge of the crucial job of links with Britain’s trade unions, was hired by Corbyn after his first leadership election victory in 2015.

But Murphy - the Unite-backed candidate at the heart of Labour’s Falkirk selection row - has used her own extensive union links to effectively take over the role, HuffPost has been told.

Platts, a left-wing supporter of Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, also suffered from not being given clear lines to brief unions on the leader’s policy positions.

YouTube
Nancy Platts

Platts was a Parliamentary candidate for Labour in Brighton Kemptown in 2015.

Jayne Fisher, a former Sinn Fein Parliamentary official, was hired only in January this year as the leader’s “Stakeholder Engagement Manager”, but will now be leaving due to ill-health, sources say.

Zarb-Cousin, well known in the House of Commons Press Gallery, will quit at the end of the month before resuming work with his former employers at the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

Prescott, whose father John was deputy Labour leader alongside Tony Blair, helped sharpen up Corbyn’s Prime Minister’s Question time performances in recent months, including his success in highlighting the Surrey County Council social care funding texts.

Twitter
A Diane Abbott tweet of Jayne Fisher with late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez

“It’s an exodus,” one insider said. “If you’re neither bad nor mad, you get out of the leader’s office when you realise just how dysfunctional it really is.”

Party staff and MPs believe Murphy’s growing influence was felt in a new job advertised this week for the role of a “Political Liaison Officer”.

According to the advert, the applicant would “help and support the relationship” between the leader’s office and MPs, councillors, Labour group leaders and constituency Labour parties.

House of Commons
The new post in the Leader's Office

One insider said that liaison was already carried out by staff at Labour HQ in Victoria Street and the new role was “an attempt to bypass party structures” and replicate the same duties with a direct link to the leader’s office.

Murphy is understood to have “executive director” status and as such is on a par with Milne and Fisher at the top of the leadership structure. They are the only two staff in the leader’s office who do not have to report to her.

The party’s ruling National Executive Committee heard this week that Corbyn’s office now totals 28 members of staff, plus four vacancies. Ed Miliband had 25 staff around him at the same stage in the Parliament.

A spokesman for the leader said: “We do not comment on staffing matters”.

However, Corbyn allies told HuffPost UK that the real rather than ‘technical’ headcount showed the two leaders had roughly the same staff levels.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images
Karie Murphy and Jeremy Corbyn pay tribute to those killed on Westminster Bridge

With an influx of cash from the near-doubling of party members in the past year, an under-staffed office is now up to strength.

Allies also rejected claims of a systemic problem in the leader’s office, saying that the usual “churn” of positions, plus health issues and restructuring to fill vacancies were all the real reasons for the staff changes.

Murphy’s defenders say that she is a “forceful character but a good manager” who brought a professionalism to the office. Platts’ own role was extended to include liaison not just with unions but also the NEC.

Claims that staff are jumping from a sinking ship are wrong, friends of the leader stress.

Mike Hatchett, a former Treasury official, was originally hired by Neale Coleman, who himself quit the Corbyn team as policy chief in January 2016. His new Whitehall job came as he also had a new baby, one source said.

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Matt Zarb-Cousin

Hatchett is being replaced by Mary Robertson, who worked for Clive Lewis before he quit the Shadow Cabinet over Brexit.

The departures of Fletcher, Coleman and Hatchett, as well as other staff, means that “there is now no one in the leader’s office who has actually run anything in their lives”, one party veteran said.

Fletcher and Coleman effectively ran London while working for Ken Livingstone in his eight years as Mayor, while Hatchett is an experienced civil servant.

Since Simon Fletcher’s departure, his campaigns role has been filled by former Unite official Niall Sookoo, who is claimed to have changed his role with the leader’s office after clashing with Murphy. 

Sookoo’s role in helping Corbyn connect more effectively with the Shadow Cabinet has now been filled by Prescott. But one insider said: “We’ve never really needed an interlocutor between the two before”.

The leader’s expansion of his team in recent weeks included the hire of Steve Howell, a longtime friend of Milne and a public relations specialist, to serve as Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications.

HuffPost UK revealed claims last week that indecision and incoherence led to Corbyn failing to act on pleas to relaunch his leadership with an eye-catching pledge to commit £350m a year to the NHS, delivering a promise broken by Brexit campaigners.

After months of an uneasy truce since his second leadership election landslide, relations between Corbyn and his MPs plumbed new depths again this week after deputy Tom Watson alleged grassroots group Momentum was plotting to take over the party with the help of Unite. 

MPs used the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to hit out at briefings against Watson, but the pushback was itself criticised by Corbyn allies. He later put out a video appealing for unity from members and MPs.

UPDATE: Nancy Platts will join Campaign Collective, a social enterprise helping charities, public service organisations and other campaigners with media and communications help.

Platts said: “It has been an honour and a privilege to work for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership, but the time has come for me to move on.

“I will continue to support Jeremy’s leadership and want to thank him for giving me such an incredible opportunity - it has been an experience I will always value.

“Although I am sad to be leaving the Leader’s Office, I am excited about becoming a Member of the Campaign Collective. The Collective’s remote working ethos will also allow me to work nearer to my home in Brighton.”