When there is chaos at the top end of a political party, it is sometimes expedient to blame the leader’s advisers rather than the leader himself. Even those people high up in the Labour Party who wish Jeremy Corbyn well will concede that the opening days of his leadership were not as organised as they might have been.
Corbyn took on the huge burden of leading the party with only a skeleton staff. He had authorised no one to speak to journalists on his behalf, no one to rebut negative stories (of which there were many), no policy adviser, and no gatekeeper to organise his diary and make sure his time was not wasted.
He did, however, have a chief of staff: Simon Fletcher, a very dedicated and hard-working party functionary, one of those clever back-room workers on whom prominent politicians rely, and who keep themselves out of the public eye. The accusation now levelled at Fletcher, 45, is that he tried to do too much himself, as if he did not realise how big a support operation a party leader needs to function efficiently. If that’s the case, he must have spent the week on a steep learning curve.
Three months ago, it cannot have crossed Fletcher’s mind that he would end the year as chief of staff to the leader of the Labour Party. When Corbyn started running for the leadership in June, having just scraped together enough nominations to get on to the ballot paper, the view within Westminster was that he was very lucky to get Fletcher to direct his campaign. Fletcher had taken on bigger – and better-paid – tasks than managing a candidate who, according to the accepted Westminster wisdom, had no chance of winning.
Fletcher has been immersed in politics all his adult life, always as part of the leftist wing of the Labour Party for which Corbyn is now the standard bearer. Raised in Banbury, the son of a Rover executive, he studied politics at what was then the City of London Polytechnic, where he chaired the student union and achieved a first-class degree – a very good first, it is said. At this time in his early adult life he was dating a newspaper reporter from the London weekly Willesden Chronicle, who duly introduced him to the then MP for Brent East, Ken Livingstone.
Livingstone was frustrated with his life as a Labour backbencher and missed the sweep of responsibilities he had exercised in his previous role as leader of the Greater London Council. He was on the lookout for advisers who could help him devise an economic strategy. The young Fletcher, who had spent time after university working on Tony Benn’s personal archives, immediately impressed as well informed and, politically, on Livingstone’s wavelength. In 1996, he hired Fletcher, by then a Camden councillor, as his election agent. The working relationship lasted for 12 years, during eight of which Livingstone was Mayor of London, and Fletcher was his chief of staff, on a salary that rose above £120,000. When Livingstone was out of London, Fletcher was left in charge.
They got on so well that, when Fletcher went through the break-up of a relationship which rendered him temporarily homeless, Livingstone and his then partner Kate Allen lent him their spare room. “He was there for several months,” Livingstone said. “He is a very nice guy, as well as being intellectually brilliant – and very tidy.”
In 2006, Fletcher married Gaby Kagan, a former organiser of Brent Labour Party. To mark the event, the Brent and Camden Labour parties held a fundraising social in Kilburn, entry fee £10, or £8 for the “unwaged”. Livingstone was best man. After the honeymoon, Fletcher joined the Mayor on a visit to Cuba. The marriage ended in divorce after a couple of years.
In 2008, a Channel 4 Dispatches programme presented by Martin Bright reported that a coterie of advisers working for the London Mayor were all members of a small group called Socialist Action. One member, Atma Singh, had fallen out with Livingstone andnamed names: Simon Fletcher was, he claimed, among those ‘‘on the periphery’’.
Explaining exactly what Socialist Action is, or was, requires a journey down the byways of the history of Marxism. The group was one of many founded by those who believed that the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was betrayed by Joseph Stalin, and that his rival Leon Trotsky was international Marxism’s rightful leader. This focus on the existence of Socialist Action could have given Fletcher an uncomfortable time – but with a mayoral election looming, Gordon Brown (who by then was Labour leader) had no intention of getting into an open dispute with Livingstone over whom he employed at City Hall.
And Socialist Action’s existence came as no surprise to the London Mayor. “Almost all of my advisers had been involved in Socialist Action,” Livingstone said. “It was the only rational left-wing group you could engage with. They used to produce my socialist economic policies. It was not a secret group.”
John Rogers, a fellow political activist from Fletcher’s student days, says that even in his youth Fletcher was not a wild revolutionary. “He was a Bennite, like many in the Labour Party at that time, but more than anything he gave the impression of being a careerist – and why not, for a very bright bloke who got a first in politics and lived and breathed the Labour Party?”
Having lost his job when Boris Johnson ousted Livingstone from the Mayor’s office in 2008, Fletcher was out of frontline politics until early in 2013, when Ed Miliband hired him to liaise between the Labour leader’s office and the trade unions.
“We all rather liked him,” another member of the office at that time said. “We used to tease him about being a Trot, and because he was very interested in weird indie bands, and was a very neat dresser.
“He was a very clever, very competent colleague – and a decent colleague, in a faction-ridden, back-biting team. I’m not sure he was actually a Trot. He’s a loyal Labour person.”
Fletcher is now the linchpin of the Corbyn operation. He and his deputy Anneliese Midgley, the former head of Unite’s political strategy team, were the only advisers in the room as Corbyn and the chief whip, Rosie Winterton, allocated the top jobs in the Shadow Cabinet. Neale Coleman, Corbyn’s newly appointed policy adviser, was Fletcher’s colleague in Livingstone’s City Hall office. The leader’s new media handler, Kevin Slocombe, former press officer for the CWU, was one of Fletcher’s union contacts.
The chief of staff may have been tardy pulling the backroom team together, but he is clearly in charge.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies