How to tell Smithies from Wonks

Labour's 53 policy advisers may seem like one big family. But they are not identical ...
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The cocky ones among Labour's elite group of 53 political advisers don't think much of the technology in the Civil Service. "It's light-years behind Millbank," says one veteran of Labour election campaign headquarters. But the civil servants have ways of dealing with difficult appointees from outside: one is to starve them of documents, the other is to drown them in paperwork. One adviser was last week reeling from the correspondence - 60 pieces - which accumulated in his in-tray during a 90-minute lunch break: "It's a cliche but the Civil Service is like a Rolls-Royce. It's very easy to sit in the back and glide around in the wonderfully oiled machine. Steering it is a different matter."

Learning how to steer is one reason for the meeting dubbed the "alternative Cabinet" which takes place each Friday morning in Downing Street or the Cabinet Office. The advisers are more numerous than their counterparts under Major - there were 38 at the end of his premiership. Salaries range from pounds 24,349 to pounds 73,484, depending on their previous remuneration. Most are in their twenties or thirties, and they know each other pretty well, socialising and playing sport as well as politics. The group includes at least one set of flatmates and three couples - and those, one Labour source said mischievously, "are the couples we know about". A handful are experts in the policies of their masters. Others have devoted their time in opposition to media management. A few more have greater expertise in the time-honoured role of the political bag-carrier.

The rationale for advisers is to give ministers an ideological input without politicising the Civil Service or creating a continental-style system of political private offices. And, despite their natural suspicion, Whitehall officials do see advantages; they can off-load work such as party conferences planning, for example, and an adviser close to his or her minister can help civil servants judge the likely ministerial reaction to a proposal.

The career of one of Labour's earliest advisers illustrates the way the system wins over politicians and officials. From 1974-76 the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, was political adviser to Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Social Services. The experience taught Mr Straw about government, and in time he inherited her seat in Blackburn.

Naturally, he is a fan of the system, and has two advisers of his own - Ed Owen, a 29-year-old Manchester graduate and former journalist with the Stockport Messenger, and Norman Warner, a policy specialist and former director of Kent Social Services. When Mr Straw was adviser to Mrs Castle, Mr Warner was her principal private secretary. Now, though there are many advisers, most fit into one of a small number of categories:

Spin doctors: Most of Labour's campaign media team moved into government. Top of the tree is Alastair Campbell, 40-year-old Cambridge graduate and former Mirror journalist, noted for his no-nonsense style.

His Downing Street colleague is Tim Allan, a 27-year-old Cambridge graduate, whose vocabulary is notably more polite. A former researcher on Channel 4's A Week in Politics, Mr Allan worked for Mr Blair on the home affairs team in opposition, and shares a flat in Islington with James Purnell, another Blair twenty-something, who is a member of Mr Blair's policy unit with expertise on media policy.

The media men do not restrict themselves to Downing Street, nor to press work. Many also double as links to the party and the unions. At the Treasury, Charlie Whelan, a public school-educated one-time Communist and former engineering union official is installed as the Chancellor's personal press secretary. Mr Whelan, 42, whose style can occasionally make Mr Campbell look tame, has a spiky relationship with Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio. Insiders say Mr Whelan's career took off when Mr Mandelson turned on him. He had become an alternative source of information.

Robin Cook's media helper at the Foreign Office is David Mathieson, a former academic. Mr Mathieson is not on the Downing Street list of special advisers, which implies that his salary comes out of Mr Cook's parliamentary office budget. Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, has brought her own press spokesman with her, 33-year-old Daniel Harris, who was educated at Cardiff and worked for the Communication Workers' Union, masterminding the successful campaign against Post Office privatisation.

Policy Wonks: The brightest include David Miliband, 32-year-old Oxford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated son of the Marxist historian Ralph Miliband. Played a key role in the Social Justice Commission set up in opposition under Sir Gordon Borrie. His younger brother Ed, 29, is an aide to Gordon Brown (and another graduate of A Week in Politics). Nor does the complicated pattern of connections end there. Ed Miliband's girlfriend is Liz Lloyd, who works in the Downing Street Policy Unit. Mr Brown's closest economic adviser is Ed Balls, 30-year-old former Financial Times leader writer, a football fan and partner of a new Labour MP, Yvette Cooper.

Other researchers brought in from opposition include David Clark and Andy Hood at the Foreign Office (where they cover Europe and the "rest of the world" respectively) and Nigel Warner at the Northern Ireland Office. At Health is Joe McCrea, 31, who was educated at Leeds University and who advised his boss, Frank Dobson, in opposition. At Education, Conor Ryan's expertise comes from having worked for the Inner London Education Authority.

Party/union loyalists: Includes John Prescott's aide, Joe Irvin, a former researcher for Bill Morris at the Transport and General Workers' Union. Also Anna Healy, who works for Marjorie Mowlam at the Northern Ireland Office, served in the Parliamentary Labour Party press office and Mr Blair's office. She is married to Jon Crudass, another long-term activist, now at Downing Street, and is described by an ally as "tough, streetwise and likeable". Mr Blair's long-standing aide, Anji Hunter, has been brought into Downing Street.

Specialists: Most prominent is Michael Barber, David Blunkett's "standards and effectiveness adviser" who, according to one Labour source, "knows much more about education than the Secretary of State". John Newbiggin, at National Heritage, is a former Kinnock aide who, more recently, has worked closely with the film director Sir David Puttnam.

Smithies: Survivors from John Smith's "McMafia" who have prospered under New Labour include Pat McFadden, 32, a former researcher to Donald Dewar, who handled links with the unions for Mr Blair in opposition. He also specialises in Northern Ireland, and he now sits in the No 10 Policy Unit. Murray Elder, one of Mr Smith's closest friends, joined Mr Dewar at the Scottish Office where he lends expertise on devolution and the constitution.

Social Democrats: Two mainstays of the No 10 Policy Unit are refugees from the party of the early 1980s: Derek Scott, economics guru, and Roger Liddle, who co-authored a book on New Labour with Mr Mandelson.

In from the cold: Julian Eccles at the Department of National Heritage is a former student activist who played a prominent role in the 1992 campaign. He then deserted Labour for the private sector, but has found his way back to the inner circle. Eccles is described by another adviser as a loyalist and fantastic organiser: "If Tony said we all had to cut our right fingers off - he'd do it."

Many of them would.