Argument

Corbyn’s Pet Stalinist

Seumas Milne loves the Soviet Union, hates the EU, and has the ear of a possible future prime minister.

Seumas Milne, the Labour Party's executive director of strategy and communications, leaves the Labour party headquarterson September 20, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Seumas Milne, the Labour Party's executive director of strategy and communications, leaves the Labour party headquarterson September 20, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The start of Jeremy Corbyn’s bizarre rise to the summit of the Labour Party was set in motion when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair signed on to the Iraq War. It took 14 years for the repercussions of Blair’s blunder to play out in full; one of the minor, by global standards, consequences was the rise of the so-called anti-imperialist movement’s key figures within Labour.

One of those figures is Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s chief strategist—and the shaper of much of Labour’s new policy. Until recently, Milne was a minor opinion page nuisance, an unreconstructed throwback to the bad old days whose columns soft-peddled the Soviet Union and railed relentlessly against Western foreign policy. Milne has for years been a fierce critic of the European Union, condemning the “brutal authoritarianism” of its handling of the Greek debt crisis and blaming it and NATO for the “defensive” Russian annexation of Crimea.

But the rise of Corbyn means that Milne is arguably now one of the most influential people in Britain: In 2017, he left the Guardian to work full time as Corbyn’s executive director of strategy and communications.

Like many of the West’s most esteemed would-be revolutionaries, Milne emerged from the very top of the social pyramid. The son of the former director-general of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, the young Milne attended Winchester College before studying philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford. According to the late Guardian editor Peter Preston, Milne is “extremely clever in a Winchester and Oxbridge way.” (Amid Britain’s tiny elite, the private school you went to is often seen as marking your character; one Conservative member of Parliament recently criticized another MP in the House of Commons for being a “typical Wykehamist,” a Winchester graduate.)

Milne has been praised from across the political spectrum for the courteousness and professionalism he displayed during his time as comment editor of the Guardian, which he edited between 2001 and 2007. Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, described the paper’s comment pages under Milne’s tutelage as “the most thought-provoking opinion section in Britain.” To be sure, Milne’s stint as comment chief was not without controversy. In 2004, Milne ran a comment piece by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, assembled from his published speeches, provoking criticism from various quarters. Yet the decision to run the piece was reportedly backed by most of the Guardian’s editorial team as well as its readers’ editor.

But Milne’s own politics, and the cluster of hard leftists around him, evidence a Stalinist orthodoxy that was once thought dead in Britain. In 1979, a pro-Soviet publication emerged from the Communist Party of Great Britain calling itself Straight Left. Editorials appeared under the nom de plume “Harry Steel,” an amalgam of Harry Pollitt, Stalin-era general secretary of the Communist Party, and Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s own “man of steel.” The paper’s staffers included Andrew Murray (today a special advisor to Corbyn), as well as  Steve Howell, who would be Milne’s deputy as communications director until the 2017 elections. Milne was appointed business manager of the paper.

In terms of its politics, Straight Left was uncritical in its support of the Soviet Union and vehemently opposed anything that smelled of Khrushchevite revisionism. The newspaper backed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and, retrospectively, the prior Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. A letter signed by “S. Milne” even appears in a 1980 edition of the New Statesman, arguing that the “legitimate Afghan government … had every right to request Soviet military aid under the Friendship Treaty.”

Milne began his newspaper career in more conventional surroundings at the Economist, where he worked as a staff journalist for three years before joining the Guardian in 1984 on a recommendation by Andrew Knight, the Economist’s then-editor.

Initially a labor correspondent, over the years Milne built up a successful following at the Guardian as a columnist, charting a reliably left-wing course that rarely deviated from orthodoxy. In a comment that might have been made about Corbyn, a former Guardian colleague of Milne’s told the New Statesman in 2016 that Milne’s “political opinions stopped developing in 1975.” Milne also wrote a book, The Enemy Within: Thatcher’s Secret War Against the Miners, a dramatic account of the 1984 miners’ strike—although one sometimes strikingly sycophantic toward Arthur Scargill, the hard-line Communist leader of the miners.

Milne’s unexpected appointment to a senior role within the Labour Party—Daily Mirror political editor Kevin Maguire was initially approached for the job by Corbyn’s team but turned it down—prompted journalists to start combing through his journalistic archives. There was no shortage of material with which to attack Milne, particularly when it came to his favorable writings and pronouncements on Soviet communism.

In a 2009 interview with his friend George Galloway on TalkSport Radio, Milne slipped into a form of wistful Ostalgie—nostalgia for the former East Germany, familiar from films such as Good Bye Lenin!describing the fall of the German Democratic Republic as an “important loss for many millions of people.” In a column for the Guardian, written several years earlier, he argued that official communism “[f]or all its brutalities and failures … delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality.”

Milne has been a longtime opponent of conventional Western foreign policy, railing against intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. After successive military debacles, Milne’s position is closer to that of the wider public than it once was. But Labour’s communications chief goes further at times, appearing to take the side of the West’s enemies. In 2014, Milne appeared on Russian state television to claim that Western coverage of President Vladimir Putin’s violent annexation of Crimea was “fundamentally misleading” because it “framed Russia as the aggressor in the conflict.” For his part, Milne blamed NATO and the Western powers for encouraging demonstrators who had ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly prior to that, he waved away warnings by British and U.S. politicians—issued just eight months before the August 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta—that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was about to use chemical weapons as “a breathtaking reprise of the falsehood that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq.”

Yet as with the media’s attacks on Corbyn, the mud slung at Milne has failed to stick, due to the failures of the Blair and David Cameron eras, particularly in the global arena. Public opinion in Britain has been increasingly isolationist in recent years, with the public growing gradually more suspicious of military involvement in conflicts overseas. Corbyn and his chief spin doctor oppose any and every type of foreign military adventure. What the two men believe about the West’s enemies appears to figure as secondary in the public imagination.

As far as the EU is concerned, Labour’s top team is heavily influenced by Euroskepticism. Murray, Corbyn’s special political advisor, only left the avowedly anti-EU Communist Party of Britain in 2016. Meanwhile, James Meadway, until recently a former economic advisor to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, called on the left to “reject Britain’s continued membership of the EU” a year before the Brexit referendum. Though Milne has stopped short—in public at least—of calling for Britain to leave the EU, according to Politico correspondents Tom McTague and Charlie Cooper he has concluded that “all-out opposition to Brexit” would damage Labour’s electoral prospects.

It would be unwise for Labour’s enemies to underestimate Milne. So far at least, he has bucked predictions that his would be a brief spell as Labour communications chief before making way for a more experienced hand. Labour wiped out Theresa May’s majority in the 2017 general election, confounding predictions among Blairite naysayers of electoral catastrophe. A slick Labour press operation during the election campaign played its part.

But the poison drip of stories in the press relating to Corbyn’s purported risk to national security—as well as his equivocation on Brexit and the scandal of anti-Semitism among the Labour membership—appears to be chipping away at Labour’s standing in the polls. Despite a shambolic government, Labour is still barely par or slightly behind the Tories in polling, and Corbyn repeatedly rates lower as a leader than even the walking disaster of May.

If Corbyn has missed his moment, then the appointment of staunch allies like Milne to key roles within the party organization is arguably a part of the reason why. Leaders ought to surround themselves with tenacious and wily characters who are prepared to contradict them, to go against received ideological wisdom and tell them their actions are damaging to the wider cause.

Milne is no dullard or complaisant yes man. The problem is instead one of doctrinal uniformity. Corbyn has surrounded himself with activists whose worldview began to ossify several decades ago. Indeed, on the appointment of Milne to his current role, a spokesperson for the Labour Party pointed out confidently that Milne “shares Jeremy’s worldview almost to the letter. … [T]hey sing from the same hymn sheet.”

The question is, do the British people?

James Bloodworth is an English journalist and writer. He is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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