Seumas Milne turned the Guardian’s comment section into a polarising bear pit. God help the Labour party

by Rob Marchant

It is now commonplace, even among journalists who should know better, to conclude that the current criticisms of the Corbyn leadership come exclusively from a hard knot of diehard centrists who refuse to accept that the new regime could win an election.

While it is clear that it cannot and it is also true that many sensible activists would rather die in a ditch than attempt to fight the hopeless battle of a general election under the current leadership, the reality is that there is really a much wider concern about the party’s current trajectory, and not just among Labour MPs. Even Tories and Lib Dems worry about the absence of a viable opposition.

To recap: we now have a party led by a man who never expected to leave the back benches; a shadow chancellor best described as “maverick”, with a treasure trove of past quotes already carefully dug up and filed at Tory HQ, providing a handy media drip-feed for the next five years.

But even though Corbyn’s win and McDonnell’s appointment were shocks, the shocks show no signs of abating. And for those few who have studied the hard left over recent years, inside and outside the party, it is difficult to find a more disturbing appointment than that of Seumas Milne as Director of Communications and Strategy. Disturbing first, if not surprising, because he appears to share pretty much the same views as his leader but a little more extreme.

Tom Harris MP is, of course, right to point out the dangerously narrow appeal of Corbyn/Milne viewpoint: that traditional Labour voters, who might have sons and daughters fighting in Britain’s armed forces, could be massively turned off by the idea that their sacrifices are for nothing; and all in the name of a monarch whom the leadership might dislike but whom those same voters are actually rather fond of.

But it is much more than that: the naked anti-West sentiment propagated by Corbyn, Milne and their pals in the Stop the War Coalition is anathema to the majority of the British public, even those who might have had mixed feelings about the results of the country’s intervention in Iraq. And even on much of the left and centre-left.

Take for example Oliver Bullough, a Russia specialist who actually supported Corbyn for leader; until, that is, he realised he had just appointed as his resident spin-doctor someone who seemed to believe that NATO was to blame for Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine.

Milne is not just a regular speaker at Stop the War Coalition rallies along with the leader himself and a rag-bag of other far-left luminaries – not least renowned dictator-lover George Galloway – but has written well-known apologia for Slobodan Milosevic and, as James Bloodworth notes here, the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Ah, they say, you just find Milne unpalatable because you are on the right of the party and he is on the left. But it’s not that, is it?

You see, it’s not because we centrists simply disagree with the party’s political direction. If someone believes that utilities should be renationalised, or that the current level of welfare spending should be increased rather than contained, you can argue with them. You can debate, and hopefully win that debate. But it’s a debate, with the usual rules. As it should be, in fact.

What do you say to people who believe the United States and their allies are the root of all evil? Or that the Soviet Union really had some pretty good compensating points for the purges and pogroms under Stalin? You cannot, of course. Logic has already left the building.

This is why Milne’s appointment has met with such harsh criticism: not because his views are just disagreed with, but because they are known to range from the merely mad to the deeply unpleasant. In the age of the internet, a journalist’s entire back catalogue can be reviewed in a matter of minutes.

So let’s examine that record. After Milne took its helm in 2001, the Guardian’s comment section started to become well-known for publishing “edgy” pieces by leading public figures. And where it ended up a few years later running pieces by terrorists, Islamist hate preachers and Holocaust cartoonists. What larks.

And then there are the Comment is Free articles by Milne himself, often with a foreign policy bent: excusing, sorry, explaining everything from Putin’s intervention in Ukraine to horrific terrorist acts.

The articles follow a standard pattern: first there is usually a cursory condemnation of some terrible event. And then there is a “but”. Funny, but there always seems to be a “but”.

And finally, the third act: there always follows a justification, normally along the lines of “this would never have happened if wasn’t for the meddling West”. Whatever calamity has occurred, it is always the West’s meddling that caused it. Terrorism? Western meddling. Putin invading three Crimean provinces? Western meddling. Beheading a British soldier on a Woolwich street in broad daylight? Western meddling. The universal template of “if it weren’t for them meddling Westerners”: it is foreign policy a la Scooby Doo.

But the final point is Milne’s involvement with the Labour party. Although a long-time member, Milne is hardly a diehard Labourite: he has long embraced the “coalition” politics of the broader far left.

As for a feeling for the party whose strategy he will now direct, an example: when the integrity of the Labour party was threatened in 2013, having reacted to an overbearing Unite union trying to meddle in the Falkirk parliamentary selection, as the party’s own report noted, who was it popped up on the BBC’s colossally-misinformed radio documentary, to defend Unite and trash the Labour Party?

Why one S Milne, Esq. – also, conveniently, friendly to the same causes as Unite’s Len McCluskey. While party staff were trying hard to salvage the reputation of their selection process, he was on hand with a “move along, nothing to see here”. The good guys were the entryists. The bad guys were the party staff, who had obviously made it all up.

No, when Ed Miliband invited former Livingstone aide Simon Fletcher – later, of course, Corbyn’s campaign manager – into the party’s bosom to run his trade union relations, some felt that Fletcher might have outgrown his far left past with the Socialist Action crowd and should be given the benefit of the doubt, rather than be treated as a potential “sleeper” from an organisation known for its “deep entryism”. Well, at least that time there was a debate to be had.

But this time, there is no doubt who will be directing traffic at the heart of the Labour machine. It will certainly not be an Alastair Campbell or a David Hill. It will be someone, rather, who seems to think that Stalin wasn’t really such a bad chap, after all.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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36 Responses to “Seumas Milne turned the Guardian’s comment section into a polarising bear pit. God help the Labour party”

  1. Robert says:

    I often disagree with Milne but he has had a succesful career in journalism. This might be useful for helping Corbyn to avoid some of the recent presentational problems. Regarding “western meddling”, Iraq has been such a success story since the invasion in 2003!

  2. Tafia says:

    Only two words spring to mind when you read this:-

    Cry baby

  3. I never thought I would think this, but I am beginning to see in myself signs of pity for Rob. Still then again, I didn’t think I would be so pleasantly surprised in having Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party leader and John McDonnell as the shadow chancellor.

    Still Rob, have you come to terms with your candidate only managing 4.5% of the Labour electorate and Corbyn have almost 50% of the party membership’s first preferences. I think before you move on you have to understand why New Labour lost not only the British public, but also Labour Party members and supporters. Corbyn was in the right place at the right time because most of all, he wasn’t one of you. I suspect you quite enjoy being disliked yourself, but when your political tendency is disliked it doesn’t bode well for its political future.

  4. Dave Roberts. says:

    You’ve summed it all up Rob. I’m banned from CiF as are many others who use venues like this and Harry’s Place as discussion forums. People who raise inconvenient issues will find that The Guardian isn’t so liberal after all and that in fact it now as tolerant of dissent as Pravda was. We don’t get a knock on the door from the Stasi, well not yet anyway, but increasingly the Grauniad is earning the title Al Grauniad.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Will be interested communication oath thelabour party becomes like CIF, open anti smeieticsim ,but dare criticize Islamists, are you’re blocked, praise the IRA killing police you get up votes, defend the police when falsely accused of things they’re cleared of, Azzelle Rodney’s death, th which police poor file on broadwater farm to get crime down,you’re blocked, apparently women who choose to be sex workers, are actually rapped when they offer sex services, and dare point out that ge refer reassign,wnt, isn’t the Sam eas being born a moon,and you’re accused of trangsednaphobia, but Islamists being sexist or homophobic ae o.k

  6. Mark says:

    As a Labour voter of over 40 years, I now feel totally disenchanted with the party. People like Seaumas Milne completely alienate me. How sad.

  7. Stuart Bruce says:

    The problem is not just with Milne’s politics, odious though they are. When you’re an employee of the party providing professional services you sometimes have to put your personal politics aside in order to do the job well. That’s true wherever you are in the spectrum of Labour politics. As an individual you’re free to agree or disagree with individual policies. As an employee you’re not.

    This brings us on to the even bigger problem – his comptetence and qualifications for the job which are very little. Quite how a glorified columnist is going to be capable of doing either strategy or communications is beyond me. In 2015 it’s utterly idiotic to appoint a journalist to lead such a role, let alone a journalist who can’t even bring finely honed broadcast or investigative news skills to the job.

    Putting the politics aside what Corbyn needs is a real communications strategist and he won’t find that from the ranks of journalism. This strategist will understand digital, social, broadcast and print media (including paid, earned, shared and owned) and needs to be supported by people (almost certainly ex-journalists) who specifically understand tabloid press and broadcast TV.

    The problem with Milne is he is not a communications strategist and almost certainy never will be. Him simply being ‘on leave’ from The Guardian tells you he doesn’t even intend to be.

  8. Mac says:

    What are you doing in the Labour party, mate?!

  9. Madasafish says:

    Mac said:”What are you doing in the Labour party, mate?!

    Err arguing and discussing.. I know stalinists don’t like the purity of their thoughts being disturbed by reality but that’s life.

  10. Andy says:

    Seamus = Yet another rich kid born with too much time on his hands to overthink everything.

    Rob, what are sensible people who want a labour option going to do? Im not voting for these dreamers in a 1000 years.

  11. Bill Gordon says:

    Milne’s appointment is a sick joke.

    JC has said much about creating a new politics, a kindler, gentler politics that was meant to tape into the enthusiasm and idealism of his mandate.

    He has chosen one of the most dogmatic hard line Leninist hacks to have ever graced the pages of the Guardian, a man who has regularly schmoozed with Galloway on the sofas of RT, who “explains” the purges of the 30s, or the crimes of 9/11, 7/7, ISIS, Putin, as either bias Western media reporting or “blow back”.

    This is the man that has been chosen as chief strategist? What was JC thinking? Did he read his columns over the past decades, and over jam and tea in Finsbury Park and think, yes, I will have some of that, he’s my man?

  12. Nick Wall says:

    The most damaging allegation here – which may give some Corbyn supporters pause for thought – is that Milne is an “apologist for Stalin”. But is it true ?

    Marchant gives us a link to Bloodworth, who in turn gives us a link to article by Croucher listing Milne’s supposed outrages. The articles from which Croucher selectively quotes reveal Milne to be anything but the monster that Marchant is trying to build up. Here’s the (25 year old) article about Stalin that’s the source of the ‘apologia’ claims : . Note that Milne is not trying to portray Stalin as anything other than a mass murderer. This is a dispassionate survey of the academic evidence which concludes with the point that “by minimising the quantitative gulf between the Hitler and Stalin killings, it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide”.

    Rather than engage with Milne’s actual views and arguments, Marchant prefers the tactics of the cheap smear. But what else would you expect from someone of his ilk.

  13. Delta says:

    if only your colleagues were up to making new friends back in 2008-2010…all this could have been avoided.
    When you become exclusive and your allies fade away, you leave yourselves open to your true opponents.
    I’m afraid the milk has been spilt…foolishly and in arrogance and ignorance of the consequences.
    massive efforts were employed to prevent it. Now you will be locked out of power.

  14. paul barker says:

    This is all true enough but doesnt really answer the point about Labour Moderates failure to grasp the scale of their defeat. Corbyns supporters probably make up 60% of the current Labour membership, they control The Major Unions & thus most of The Money & they are building a hold on the Party machiniery. The Moderates are divided & confused, while the new alliance of of Soft & Hard Left forges ahead.
    Its time for Labour Moderates to admit that they have lost, comprehensively & finally & to do some hard thinking about where to go.

  15. historyintime says:

    Mikne is a knob and creep. Of course so are the Oxbridgian political staffers of the Right with their entitlement and oiliness. The difference being that the policy views of Milne etc are mad or profoundly anti democratic. Honestly and I know its banal but what would have happened in 1940 if these people were in charge. Or in 2020 actually. You really have to curse the jellybacks in the 2010-15 Right and hope they have learned their lesson.

  16. AnneJGP says:

    Unless I mis-read it, the Methodism side of the Methodism/Marxism roots of the Labour party has long since fallen out of favour; by far the most vocal members that I come across being agnostic if not atheist.

    So I am really very interested to see how long the overtly Christian members of the party will be able to feel a continuing sense of belonging. Are there still a substantial number of them?

  17. Bill Gordon says:

    Apologies for the long posting but here is an extract from a review of Robert Service’s book Comrades:

    “Communism, which came to control a third of the planet in a generation, was the most important political movement of the past century. It carried out what other socialists had only talked about, abolishing capitalism and creating publicly owned, planned economies. Its crimes and failures are now so well rehearsed that they are in danger of obliterating any understanding of its achievements – both of which have lessons for the future of progressive politics and the search for a social alternative to globalised capitalism. It was a communist state, after all, that played the decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, and communists who led the resistance in occupied Europe (something Service skips over in a few sentences); along with its brutalities and authoritarianism, communism delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality. Its collapse, by contrast, has brought an explosion of poverty and inequality and, in Russia, a retreat from the democratisation of the last years of the communist regime.”

    While some of this might be historically true the general gist is an apologia. Who said “you can’t have an omelet without breaking a few eggs”? Is this a cheap smear?

  18. John P Reid says:

    I know dozens of people who voted Corbyn and get it, but those telling Rob,to like it or lump it,will be the real ones crying ,when acibyn leads up to destruction

  19. chris says:

    @john p reid

    What the hell are you talking about???

  20. Richard says:

    The left of the party has always supported those who would call themselves ‘freedom fighters’ but defined as terrorists by those with power. The most obvious example of this being Nelson Mandela who was regarded as a terrorist by Thatcher, right until it was realised he might just save British interests in South Africa.

    The left are doing this again over Palestine as we commonly hold the perspective that the Palestinian people are oppressed in their own country, which is viewed by most on the left as occupied by Israel, who are held in power by US arms and funding, in a state created by Britain with a geo political strategic goal after WW ll. Some would go as far to argue that the West Bank is the worlds largest open prison. Like it or not this gets the left into the position of opposing uk and us imperialism, as uncomfortable as this might make us, and this is not a position we take a priori.

    I expect the Tories, the representatives of the ruling elites, to define those opposing Israel’s occupation as terrorists, whether they are throwing stones or missiles because of the geo political interests they have in supporting Israel. But I struggle with those in our ‘broad church’ who repeat the position of the ruling elites and even use this position to attack somebody employed by the leadership.

    So when I see a central part of Marchants argument against Milne’s appointment is that he allowed the publication of two articles written by Palestinian ‘terrorists’ in the Guardian I begin to wonder just how broad this particular church has become. We look back at Marchant’s other articles and we see he has done the same with Corbyn as well, associating him with ‘terrorists’.

    In my view a party can be ‘broad’ but it must have limits else we might as well be a single party state. The logic of this is that people who hold particular perspectives inimical to party A then they need to look at party B, C, D and so on. As we live in a multi party democracy finding a party where your views are acceptable is usually possible.

    Of course if most of your views are in accordance with party A and you hold the important values of that party but you would like a number of policies changed then party A is the party for you, join and try to change it. What I am struggling to see with Marchant and those in Progress is how they ever shared the values of the Party as it was when they joined it. They changed clause IV, a fundamental value of our party before they started meddling; tried to break the links with TU; reduced the democratic influence of members in conference and the selection of parliamentary candidates and a host more besides.

    Time to wake up people. These people are as enterist as Militant ever were only more damaging to working people because at least the Militant would never have tried to be Tory lite. It is not ‘Stalinist’ therefore for people like me to tell the Marchant’s of this world to piss off and join the LibDem’s where they belong, though to be fair I think Marchant is a one nation Tory. We decided our values when we resoundingly elected Corbyn and rejected the rest, so it is time to buck up or ship out. Time for rule changes so WE can define and expel the ‘enemy’ which is exactly what they did and yet now scream about.

  21. Mike Stallard says:

    “Rob, what are sensible people who want a labour option going to do? Im not voting for these dreamers in a 1000 years.”

    Three possibilities:
    1. Join the Lib Dems as they recover from a disastrous 5 years and begin to assert their left wing roots.
    2. Join Ukip just before the referendum. Actually this isn’t so ridiculous as it sounds. Ukip do connect with what a lot of real working people feel – and indeed know – from first hand experience – and Nigel Farage is a brilliant speaker.
    3. Wait for the next Tony Blair figure. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be one in the pipeline, but the Conservatives are about to split on Europe… Watch this space.

  22. Rob Marchant says:

    @historyintime: “what would have happened in 1940 if these people were in charge”.

    I think we all know the answer to that one.

  23. chris says:


    “@historyintime: “what would have happened in 1940 if these people were in charge”.

    I think we all know the answer to that one.”

    Oh dear, it seems you’re going from a Dan Hodges tribute act to Richard Littlejohn one!!!

  24. Mike Homfray says:

    To summarise:he wrote things I didn’t agree with and a leader got elected who I didn’t vote for and its NOT FAIR!!
    Your choice Rob. The party has moved on . You haven’t. If you wish to stay with us you are welcome but if so less of the articles which try to do down and damage the party. Or you really may as well go over to the Tories who in your heart of hearts you know your poltical views match much more closely.

  25. Michael Worcester says:

    The Guardian is Anti English that’s why it appointed Milne even though his views are obnoxious. Labour should have not followed the London centric, champagne socialists but go back to the values of the British working class, they are not the same.

  26. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Corbyn’s operation Barbarossa – He is now fighting a two front war:

    1. Against the Labour moderates.

    2. Against the reality of the electorate.

    Will the supply line from the Lefty Loonies be sufficient for victory by the winter of 2020?

  27. John P Reid says:

    It seems to me ,some of the new corbyn supporters don’t want to do any canvassing,or deliver leaflets,or do fundraising ,will they re new their membership, the ones who were in the party ,who are talking of leaving ,were the ones who use to do the canvassing, the party will be screwed,if we continue doen this path

  28. Ukip4Wales says:

    Welsh Labour’s Unison Wales have organised a “gobfest”in Swansea. Entry is free!

  29. chris says:

    @john p reid

    “It seems to me ,some of the new corbyn supporters don’t want to do any canvassing,or deliver leaflets,or do fundraising ,will they re new their membership, the ones who were in the party ,who are talking of leaving ,were the ones who use to do the canvassing, the party will be screwed,if we continue doen this path”

    I’m sorry but while this comment is, mercifully, almost decipherable it is still utter rubbish.

  30. John P Reid says:

    Chris, constructive criticism ?,have you seen many members out canvassing, I live in the east end of London,all those who’ve been to fundraisers in the last 2 months, have been members for years,same with those who deliver leaflets

  31. steve says:

    Mike Homfray: “you really may as well go over to the Tories”

    But what would the Tories want with Rob?

    Better for them to have Rob remaining in the LP even if he can do no more than bleat from the sidelines.

    I find that his carrying-on has entertainment value. Just read the final (intended to be hard-hitting) line of his piece above: ” It will be someone, rather, who seems to think that Stalin wasn’t really such a bad chap, after all.”

    Is this wet rag of a sentence the best condemnation Rob can come up with?

    By Jove, I described Rob as “bleating from the sideliens”, perhaps I should have written “squeaking from the sidelines”.

  32. John P Reid says:

    But what would the Tories want with Rob,

    one less vote for us ,one more for the?

  33. Chris says:

    @john p reid

    Sorry John your comment was vapid. Obviously, it isn’t compulsory to become an active member, the vast majority of members are not activists. Criticising Corbynista members because all 250k of them haven’t immediately marched on the local council estates like the Parisian mob marching on Versailles is threadbare drivel.

    Perhaps your CLP should have a new members welcome meeting rather than a fundraiser as its a bit crass to ask new members for more money immediately. It might be a good idea to tone down your disdain for anything vaguely left wing at any such meeting.

  34. John P Reid says:

    Chris ok, think they have, but, at branch meetings they’re happy to put their views in how we should get across policy, but then won’t put out, when trying to put those views to the public,

  35. Sean Connor says:

    Labour Uncut should change its name to Tory Uncut. Jeremy Corbyn got almost 60% of the Leadership vote. Either get used to it, or get out of the Party .

  36. John P Reid says:

    Saen Connor, some people who comment here who normally vote labour,aren’t in the party,same as some who voted For Corbyn, and some didn’t vote in the leadership election at all

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