Morgan McSweeney: Labour election guru and bogeyman of the party’s left

<span>McSweeney’s crusade to expunge Corbynism from the Labour party has made him a divisive figure.</span><span>Photograph: Shutterstock</span>
McSweeney’s crusade to expunge Corbynism from the Labour party has made him a divisive figure.Photograph: Shutterstock

For a man at the heart of the Labour party, Morgan McSweeney lives a long way from Westminster. He spends much of his time doing a six-hour commute from home in Lanark, the town south of Glasgow where he lives with his family, to Labour’s HQ in Southwark. Despite the distance he travels, he is in many ways the ultimate Labour insider – one who has made it his mission to transform the way the party appeals to the country.

As Labour’s elections guru and Keir Starmer’s closest aide, McSweeney has near-unrivalled influence. He is credited by many for steering Labour to all-but-certain victory in the election next month. Adored by many staffers and key shadow cabinet ministers alike, some party figures retain more affection for him than they do the leader. The highest form of praise in Labour HQ is: “Morgan loves it.”

But his popularity outside of the central party machine is not universal. His long crusade to expunge Corbynism from the Labour party has made him a bogeyman of the left. He has shown little sentiment for those candidates and activists pushed aside in his pursuit of that aim, and has a penchant for ruthlessly promoting his friends and allies. Many of them have been parachuted in as candidates in safe and easily winnable Labour seats, ready to play a role in a Labour government.

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McSweeney’s allies are unapologetic. “Morgan’s the saviour of the Labour party,” one former colleague said. “Remember all those fuckers who abandoned the party [under Jeremy Corbyn] for Change UK or for fake jobs with Boris Johnson. Morgan stayed in the party and pulled us out of the mire, by raising money, commitment, strategy and most of all his own bloody sweat. People would do well to remember that … And lots of the people who got safe seats you can criticise all you like, but they are also the ones who put in a shift to get us here when so many others opted out.”

“Without him I don’t think any of this could really have happened,” a well-connected party figure allied to McSweeney said. “Prior to the 2020 leadership campaign, it was basically him that worked out that Keir was the non-Corbynite candidate that could win.”

As 4 July nears, one of the key questions occupying Westminster is what role McSweeney would take on in a Starmer government. He has been called both Starmer’s Dominic Cummings and his Isaac Levido, but he fits neither mould. In different ways those men have both approached the Conservative party from the outside, while McSweeney’s defining mission has been to change Labour’s machinery from within and transform the party into an electoral force.

That has led to suggestions that McSweeney could move to a party HQ role after the election, but those around him dismiss this. “He needs to be given something very big and consequential to do in government,” said the well-connected Labour insider, describing his likely job description as: “How do we deliver politically in a way that keeps our coalition of voters together and gets us to a second victory?”

A senior Labour source said McSweeney was in discussions over a role that would involve advising Starmer on big-picture political strategy and winning a second term. “People keep saying he wants to be general secretary. That’s rubbish. He will want to go into Downing Street and be part of it. The only question is: what’s the role? … He will make sure things are rooted in politics.”

“His thing is campaigning, is winning – it isn’t governing in that sense,” another Labour insider close to the leadership said. “The only time he gets involved in policy detail is when it involves some political risk … The next campaign starts as soon as the current one finishes.”

His wife, Imogen Walker, is Labour’s candidate in Hamilton and Clyde Valley, so the pair will emerge as a formidable power couple if she wins and Labour enters government.

A well-connected Labour figure said McSweeney had expressed concern in recent weeks about the challenge that surging rightwing populism in Britain and in Europe would pose to a Starmer government – especially following the results of the EU elections and the return of Nigel Farage to the political frontline. Responding to that could become a core part of his role.

The New Labour years

Born in Macroom, County Cork, McSweeney’s earliest job for the Labour party was a junior role in the attack and rebuttal unit at HQ. The 2001 Labour conference, held days after 9/11, was formative for the young activist, particularly the words in Blair’s speech: “The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do let us reorder this world.” It was a political moment that the then prime minister had unashamedly seized. During the New Labour years McSweeney worked under Peter Mandelson and rose to a key organising role for marginal seats in the 2005 election.

He developed a taste for fighting the left while working for Labour in London. In 2006 he became a campaign aide to Steve Reed, who was trying to regain control of the party in Lambeth from the hard left. The two men “stuck together” and later formed Labour Together as a project to fight back against Corbynism but the “balance of power has shifted” over the years, with McSweeney now in the ascendancy.

During his time at Lambeth council, McSweeney did not stand out as anything other than “a really solid organiser” – and had not developed any reputation as a “genius svengali”, according to Labour figures from that era. But he learned valuable lessons. “The folk memory from that time which Morgan absorbed is firstly that you cannot fall prey to the hard left and secondly that you can’t take election for granted,” one source said.

Between 2008 and 2010, McSweeney was adapting the same principles to organising against the BNP in Barking, where he met another of his key mentors, the Labour MP Jon Cruddas. One of the lessons they took from that fight was that it was not always lofty ideals that defeated extremism, but also graft and a willingness to listen to what was at the root of people’s problems, which was often anger at government incompetence.

Having become well-known in Labour circles, McSweeney first came to attention in Westminster for his work with Labour Together, which he used as a vehicle to persuade Labour MPs to stay in the party under Corbyn and, rather than defect or actively agitate, wait for his defeat and then fight to retake control. It was this group that eventually became the power base behind Starmer’s leadership bid.

Starmer was earmarked as a prospect early on. At a Labour Together dinner for journalists shortly after the 2015 election, Reed, Lisa Nandy, McSweeney and others were holding court when it became clear that a special guest was about to be introduced: Starmer. “It felt like he was the heir apparent. He was their best prospect and they had chosen him rather than the other way around,” one source said.

When McSweeney arrived in the leader of the opposition’s office after Starmer’s leadership victory, he was methodical in ensuring that Corbyn supporters were removed from every lever of power inside the party, from the general secretary’s office to the most minor committee. He was determined, allies say, to get rid of any obstacle to the total power of the leader, whether that be opponents on the national executive committee, malcontents in Labour HQ or awkward votes at party conference. Early in his sights was Richard Leonard, the party’s leader in Scotland. Rebecca Long-Bailey was swiftly out of Starmer’s shadow cabinet. And then, Corbyn himself.

McSweeney’s critics on the left say he and Starmer essentially came to positions of power through a mission to deceive Labour members – to ape the popular parts of Corbynism with 10 pledges they never intended to enact and then to wage a factional war. “The ‘political genius’ praise should be tempered by the fact he basically committed fraud to win the Labour Leadership,” one leftwing source said. “Lying is not a genius strategy.”

For his part, McSweeney was personally appalled by the Corbyn years and still feels angry about the state of the party under the former leader. He repeatedly reminds staff not only of the party’s electoral state at that time but of the antisemitism crisis and how the party was put in special measures by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office, as well as the perilous financial position it was put in, racked by legal cases and by projects such as the disastrous Labour Live concert.

Staff from the Corbyn era dispute any idea there was financial mismanagement and say the party was healthily in the black and that major legal bills were incurred under Starmer, including a case against former staff that was dropped.

His first big gamble was bringing in rule changes at Labour conference. In the run-up, as Labour tried to keep things secret, he told friends he was sleeping only two hours a night, waking up in dread. But there was a sense of urgency that Labour had to make the changes well before a general election.

There are strong rumours in party circles that the next conference – likely the first with Labour in government – will be a moment of maximum strength to deliver some even more dramatic and controversial rule changes. A key ambition of some is to give MPs the sole power to choose the next Labour leader if the change takes place while the party is in government. By way of argument they point to the chaos unleashed by Conservative members time and again when they were able to directly choose the next prime minister.

Two weeks to go

For now McSweeney’s core mission is to help Labour win, and the party has been on an election footing for almost a year now. Every Friday morning, he gathers Labour staff for a meeting about the week ahead.

Gone are the days of sweary special advisers throwing mobile phones and threatening people. “It used to be like that in the 00s but that is not Morgan’s style,” says one party staffer. “He is softly spoken and approachable. He does get angry but not in a way that bullies people.”

He has a knack for catchphrases, some of them tinged with black humour. At a presentation setting out Labour’s target seats in the 2023 local elections he told shadow cabinet advisers: “Every time you or your boss visits somewhere not on this list, a Labour councillor dies.”

Since the election was called, he has had very little tolerance for diplomacy or compromise. Labour’s clause V meetings, where manifestos are agreed by a huge committee, are usually nine-plus-hour affairs. It has long been an ambition of McSweeney to move on from such a tradition. One former colleague recalled attending the meeting in 2017 with him during his time working for the Labour group in the Local Government Association. Walking in, McSweeney is said to have observed that, if he was in charge, he would tell the assembled general secretaries and shadow cabinet ministers: “This is the manifesto, it’s already been printed, so the vote is, yes or no, and then we go.” The clause V meeting this year approved the manifesto in record time by acclamation – with the room breaking out in applause.

The only thing McSweeney seems to fear is that complacency will prove to be Labour’s ruin. He likes to point out to colleagues that in 1997, 70% of people always voted for the same party but now only 40% do so. He says that voter volatility has helped transform Labour’s electoral prospects since 2019 – but that this also means the party’s poll lead could quickly evaporate.

“This is a guy that grew up in the Republic [of Ireland] but has an intuitive sense of what ordinary British voters feel that is quite rare for people in politics. Blair had that himself, he didn’t need someone to advise him on that,” a Labour insider said. “Morgan has that Blair-like ability to sense what the average voter wants from the Labour party.”

• This article was updated on 18 June 2024 to include a response to McSweeney’s claims about the state of Labour’s finances during Corbyn’s leadership.