I first met Seumas Milne when he was 21 and we studied economics together in evening classes at Birkbeck College, London, in 1979-81.
He was affable and sparky: Balliol, Winchester, and an upbringing as son of the BBC Director-General do something for you. And unlike most from similar backgrounds, he identified with the left.
Like me, he chose Birkbeck because that was the most left-wing economics department in the country. But he was a Stalinist. A Stalinist of a diehard sort by then rare. He had thrown in his lot with a “left” defined by the USSR and other powers opposed to the USA, not with the working class.
The paper which he would swap with my Trotskyist weekly was the now-long-defunct Straight Left, put out by a splinter from the Communist Party which had gone into the Labour Party. The leading figure in Straight Left was Fergus Nicholson, formerly the Communist Party’s student organiser, who adopted the pen-name Harry Steel in tribute to Stalin himself (Stalin, in Russian, meaning “man of steel”).
Another Straight Lefter was Andrew Murray, now chief of staff of the Unite union. Milne, like Murray, is still a Stalinist. Writing for the Guardian, as he has done for many years, he puts his views in urbane double-negative form, but he is still a Stalinist.
Some Corbyn supporters have defended Milne’s appointment as Labour’s head of communications by saying that Milne “understands our politics inside out” or has political views identical to Corbyn’s. The praise for Milne is not necessary to defend Corbyn.
The Tories who had Andy Coulson (jailed for phone-hacking) as David Cameron’s director of communications, and the New Labour types who had Alastair Campbell (former porn journalist) doing a similar job for Blair, are in no position to complain. And the praise is unfair to Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn did move closer to the Morning Star from the late 1980s, but, for example, he has defended the rights of Tibet.
There is another difference. Whatever disputes we may have had with Jeremy Corbyn, in demonstrations and on picket lines we can count on him to be there with us. Although he has long been an MP, he has remained an activist. Milne is not like that.
Presumably he went to some meetings, demonstrations, and the like in his Straight Left days, but apart from that all his input into politics has been “from the top”, from his armchair as a senior Guardian journalist or a book-writer. (Before the Guardian, he worked for the Economist magazine.) I guess his Guardian job makes him appear “ready-made” for the head of communications job, just as Simon Fletcher may have appeared “ready-made” to run the Leader’s Office for Corbyn because Fletcher had been chief of staff to Ken Livingstone as mayor of London and a functionary in Ed Miliband’s office, although he had no background in grassroots labour movement activism.
Fletcher also has Stalinistic politics, derived from the Socialist Action group which, ex-Trotskyist, now, presents the Chinese state as a model. Operators used to snuggling into the established political and media machines, ideologically imbued with and trained over decades in “top-down” politics, will not serve Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and us well in opening up and revitalising the Labour Party.