The US intelligence community is clear: Donald Trump was Putin’s candidate for American president.
But Putin’s allies in the West don’t end there. And they are a strange bunch. As you can see below, they include Germany’s far-right AfD party.
Moscow also has ties with the European grouping known as Europe of Nations and Freedom, which is chaired by Marie le Pen of France and the Italian Northern League.
In Britain this includes a former UKIP MP.
But a rather more important fan of Mr Putin is Seumas Milne – currently the Labour Party’s Executive Director of Communications and Jeremy Corbyn’s right hand man.
Milne’s role is outlined in the final article below.
And what is Putin’s strategy? A fascinating article from Bloomberg is also below.
Moscow’s Fifth Column German Populists Forge Ties with Russia
Source: Der Spiegel
The right-wing populist, anti-refugee Alternative for Germany party is seeking ever-closer ties with Moscow. Now, the AfD’s youth wing is discussing an alliance with the youth movement of Putin’s party United Russia. The AfD is also courting Russian-German voters.
Marcus Pretzell is waiting. He’s a member of the European Parliament with the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and he’s sitting on the podium at the Yalta International Economic Forum, an event hosted by the Russian government at a resort on the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Pretzell has been seated directly next to the moderator. The AfD politician, who is head of the party in North Rhine-Westphalia, its largest state chapter, is the guest of honor from Europe. His presence is intended to send the message that Russia is not internationally isolated.
The panel host then finally asks Pretzell to speak. “We at Alternative for Germany represent not only a threat to the Ukrainian government, but also to the German government,” he proudly announces. The audience applauds. He then goes on to say that good economic relations with Russia “are in the interest of the German people” and that sanctions should be lifted immediately. The applause grows. In Russia, the moderator adds, people have the impression that the German people are of the same opinion as Pretzell. “Marcus, you have made 140 million new friends today.”
A Natural Partner
Russia also has many friends in the AfD. Leading party officials are pursuing a clearly pro-Russian path and are trying to establish tight relations with people in President Vladimir Putin’s circle. The right-wing populists are undeterred by the Kremlin’s anti-liberal, anti-American and homophobic ideology. On the contrary: For large parts of the AfD party base, those factors appear to make Russia an attractive partner. At the same time, the AfD, with its critical stance toward the EU and NATO, also appears to be a natural partner for Putin. Now, though, the relationship is advancing past the stage of discussions and conferences: The youth wing of the AfD is forming more formal ties with the youth organization of Putin’s United Russia party.
Leading AfD politicians like deputy head Alexander Gauland have pursued a pro-Russian course since the party’s founding three years ago. They have accepted invitations to conferences featuring Putin’s confidants and those who influence his ideology and they have forged alliances with Eastern European nationalists loyal to the Kremlin as well as with traditionally Russia-friendly right-wing populist parties in Western Europe like France’s Front National and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) — which this weekend won the first-round of Austrian presidential elections. AfD is currently planning a conference together with the Russian Embassy in Potsdam in June.
At its national party conference at the beginning of May, the AfD is expected to root its approach to Russia in its party doctrine, in the form of votes on several resolutions calling for Germany to leave NATO. Björn Höcke, a prominent member of the party’s ultra-right wing, last week announced his support for the resolutions.
There is currently no proof that AfD receives financial support from Moscow. The party’s treasurer, Klaus Fohrmann, categorically denies such speculation. But prior to a trio of state elections in March, the party did receive generous donations in-kind in the form of thousands of election signs and millions of copies of a free campaign newspaper promoting the AfD’s anti-refugee platforms. The patron has remained anonymous, and Fohrmann concedes he cannot rule out with certainty that Russian money may have been involved.
That is especially true of the Young Alternative (JA), AfD’s youth arm, which isn’t shy when it comes to embracing pro-Russian circles. Even back in 2014, the JA state chapter in Lower Saxony invited senior officials from the Russian Embassy in Berlin for a meeting. An item in JA’s member newsletter stated there had been agreement at the meeting that responsibility for the “disastrous escalation of the situation in Ukraine clearly lies with the scarcely forward-looking and extremely uneven EU foreign policy.”
JA head Markus Frohnmaier often takes trips to regions in which NATO is considered to be an aggressor and Russia to be the last hope for a “multipolar world.” In mid-October 2014, for example, he visited Belgrade, where he attended the celebrations surrounding the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Yugoslavia from its German occupiers. Putin also attended, and to welcome him, the city had been decked out in pro-Russian signs like, “Putin is a Serb.” There, Frohnmaier met up with members of the far-right, critics of the United States and Kremlin allies. Last summer, he took a trip to contested eastern Ukraine to visit the “Donbass Forum,” where Frohnmaier discussed “Peace for Ukraine” together with Manuel Ochsenreiter, a prominent right-wing writer with the New Right movement (a play on the New Left of the 1960s), and Jean-Luc Schaffhauser of France’s Front National.
The trend continued during Frohnmaier’s most recent trip to Crimea — to a conference attended by 1,000 participants, but with only 70 foreign guests. Two were politicians with Austria’s FPÖ. The Russian organizers paid for his trip to Yalta, which, he says, is “standard practice.”
But the Young Alternative’s most important foreign policy contact to date took place just last week. Last Wednesday afternoon, Frohnmaier and his JA co-head Sven Tritschler, sat down over a beer in Berlin. They had just had a successful meeting with a partner: Robert Schlegel, a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament, and a leading official with Putin’s United Russia party. Schlegel and the JA leaders have discussed a new partnership between the Young Guard, the youth wing of Putin’s party, and its counterpart in the AfD. “Euro critical and sovereigntist movements are gaining in strength across the entire European continent,” says Frohnmaier, adding that it is “self-evident that these activities be pooled into a new youth network.” Russia, he says, also has to be a part of it.
Putin’s Young Guard already maintains alliances with partners abroad in countries like Kazakhstan and Serbia. According to its charter, its aim is the “integration of the youth into the process of building a democratic and socially just society,” followed by the “conveyance of patriotism and national pride.”
Anti-Western Sentiment and Homophobia
In practice, however, the 150,000-member strong Youth Guard is better known for its anti-Western and homophobic propaganda. In February in Moscow, on the occasion of the US Presidents’ Day holiday, they mounted a cartoon exhibition on the “crimes” committed by American leaders. Further areas of focus of the Young Guard include the defamation of opposition politicians as “lesbians, gays and transvestites.” Last year, they even collected signatures opposing an online self-help group for gay and lesbian youth.
Schlegel, himself a former spokesman for Nashi, a now defunct Kremlin-aligned youth movement, travels around the world on behalf of Putin’s party and he is a popular guest in places like Belgrade and Damascus. Only in Berlin, Schlegel laments, has political access become difficult. He says the situation has worsened, particularly since the death of Philipp Missfelder, the late parliamentarian from Merkel’s conservative CDU who had focused on foreign policy. Missfelder died unexpectedly in July at the age of 35 after suffering from a pulmonary embolism. Schlegel says the politician had always been willing to listen to him.
Fortunately for Schlegel, the Young Alternative is now standing by to provide him with a sympathetic ear. Frohnmaier is little disturbed by the Kremlin youths’ ideological orientation. “Despite Western reservations about the Russian political system, it is unquestionable that President Putin and his party enjoy the support of the majority of Russians,” he says. Besides, the 25-year-old adds, “our country isn’t like some kindergartner in the world” — it needs to finally “represent its vital national interests” in the foreign policy arena.
The close ties between Moscow and the AfD also run through Germany’s sizeable Russian-German community. Germany is home to 2.5 million Spätaussiedler, or “late repatriates,” ethnic Germans who had lived in Russia for generations, many of whom have maintained close ties to their former home country. AfD has actively courted this population, even setting up a network within the party of these so-called “Russlanddeutsche.” The strategy has borne fruit, particularly in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where the AfD garnered 42 percent of the vote in Villingen-Schwenningen and 52 percent Wertheim, both cities that are home to large populations of Russian-Germans.
Particularly interesting for Putin is the fact that many Russlanddeutsche can still vote back in their former home of Russia. Duma elections are scheduled to take place this September. Using the AfD and its youth arm, the JA, seems like an obvious way to approach these voters.
The German right-wing populists also maintain contacts to representatives of the Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches. They know each other from having attended protests against the education curriculum plans promoted by the the state government of Baden-Württemberg, led by a coalition pairing the Green Party and the Social Democrats. They also attended the “March for Life” demonstrations against abortion together. “Many orthodox values have no resonance within the old parties,” Frohnmaier explains. “We give these people a new political home.”
AfD’s deputy party head Gauland says he has “no reservations whatsoever” about the a possible alliance between JA and the Putin youth. After all, he himself traveled to Russia at the end of 2015 on a trip paid for by the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, which is financially backed by a Putin-loyal oligarch. In St. Petersburg, Gauland met with members of the Duma, a personal advisor to Putin and Alexander Dugin, a neo-fascist, anti-Western ideologist whose ideas are taken seriously by the Kremlin. Gauland says Dugin is a pleasant conversation partner. Too bad, the politician says, that Dugin would like to restore czarist traditions.
Gauland also knew of Pretzell’s plan to travel to the conference in Crimea and even wished his colleague “good luck.” After all, he says, “Crimea was already Russian once and now it is Russian again. And it will never return to Ukraine.” Germany must accept this reality, he adds.
The Coming Foreign Policy Battle
Understandably enough, Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, has a different view. He accuses Pretzell and Frohnmaier of having traveled into the region without Ukrainian permission. “Illegal entry into Crimea is no misdemeanor — it’s a serious crime,” says Melnyk. Pretzell entered Crimea on a Russian visa — the purpose of his visit was listed as “research and technical relations.” Because Germany, too, considers the annexation of Crimea to be a violation of international law, Melnyk filed a protest note with the German Foreign Ministry, aksing Berlin to “undertake all necessary measures to prevent that kind of violation of Ukrainian laws in the future.” The AfD politicians are facing a possible five-year ban on entering Ukraine.
But not all members of the AfD leadership are pleased with the activities of the pro-Russian faction. At the party conference this weekend in Stuttgart, foreign policy is expected to be one of the more divisive issues. “In my assessment, AfD’s approach to Russia is too imbalanced at the moment,” says Alice Weidel, a member of the party’s national executive committee. “It’s important to me that the party isn’t forced into a one-sided strategy on this issue.” An economist by training, Weidel also warns against withdrawing from NATO. “We have enjoyed prosperity and peace for decades. We owe this to the Euro-Atlantic community,” she says.
But Frauke Petry, head of the national party, is following a different course. In a recent letter to party members, she began paving the way for a new strategic orientation toward the east. In it, Petry writes that the party should ally with euroskeptic forces in European Parliament, also referring explicitly to the Europe of Nations and Freedom parliamentary group, which includes Front National and FPÖ among its members.
These parties all have at least one thing in common: Their friendship with Russia.
To Deal With Putin, First Know His Goals
Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a roll. The catalog of his alarming moves is well-known: Aggression in Ukraine, interference in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, stepped-up intelligence efforts that may include a hybrid operation to discredit Hillary Clinton, a slick, prolific propaganda machine, support for nationalist and populist movements in Europe. But why is Putin doing all this?
The common explanation is that Putin and his circle see Russia’s relationship with the West as a zero-sum game. Molly McKew, a former adviser to anti-Russian leaders of Georgia and Moldova, recently wrote a much-shared article expounding the view that this is a war and urging the West to act to defeat the aggressive Russian leader.
A sideline of this school of thought focuses on Putin’s sheer bloody-mindedness and self-interest. Gary Kasparov, the chess champion and long-time Putin opponent, argues that Putin has “no consideration of what is or is not good for Russia, or for Russians, only what is best for him and his close circle of oligarch elites.”
Both perspectives have merit: Putin’s view of the West, or at least of its centrist elite, is unflinchingly adversarial and revanchist. The perpetuation of his own power is clearly a goal, evidenced by his efforts to flatten domestic opposition by whatever means, from election rigging to stifling the media. But these cliches also oversimplify things. In the rush to frame the terms of what is in all-but-name a renewed Cold War, Western policy-makers risk missing the forest for the trees. To better assess what actions are worth countering, they should first try to understand Putin’s strategic objectives.
Rather than a crude us-versus-them mindset, a cocktail of mysticism and capitalist instincts seems to animate Putin and his close friends and aides. Anton Vaino, appointed Putin’s chief of staff last year, co-wrote a book, called “The Image of Victory,” about the global politics as a game. It’s an esoteric treatise known for its discussion of the nooscope — a strange device to “detect and register changes in the biosphere and in human activity.” It does, however, offer plenty of clues to current Kremlin thinking. For example, it makes this distinction between a war and a game:
In war, there is us and them, friends and enemies, front and rear. A was has and end and a beginning. Victory and Defeat. In a game, everything is different. A game is a system of chess, card or checkers moves made in a different space than that of war, with a different degree of foresight of the convergent processes of interaction between adversaries. In a game, time flows differently and interaction, too is different. One of us can be theirs, and one of them can be ours.
Putin has been declared a thug; he, however, still sees himself as a chess grandmaster playing a complicated game with elements of violence and subterfuge. In “The Image of Victory,” the goal is economic: A massive increase in the value of Russian assets, which would make Russia an equal in determining “the rules of the Global Game.” Since 2012, when the book was published, Putin has made policy choices that prioritized geopolitics over economics. That doesn’t mean, however, that the long-term goal has changed.
There are indications that it hasn’t. Frauke Petry, co-leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD) — the nationalist, pro-Putin party that has made much headway in recent German regional elections — this week published an essay in the Swiss weekly Weltwoche, arguing for an enormous free-trade area that would include the U.S., Europe and Russia, turning the European Union into a far looser, primarily economic, bloc than it is today. Petry wrote:
With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, new options will also open up here: free trade from Vladivostok to Anchorage, but not on terms which give big industry exclusive competitive advantages over medium-sized companies.
Putin himself has repeatedly mentioned a trade zone from Lissabon to Vladivostok, though not extending it as far as the U.S. The Kremlin is looking for channels to communicate its ideas in the West and European nationalists like Petry are probably one of the best sources on Putin’s agenda today. Putin’s United Russia party is even forging formal alliances with European nationalist parties, and the AfD is no exception.
It’s also worth recalling that the Ukraine crisis started when Russia tied to pull the neighboring country into a post-Soviet free trade area Putin has been trying to patch together. Ukraine opted to move toward EU membership; the Kremlin wanted trilateral talks on economic cooperation, but the EU refused to invite Russia to the table. Moscow then put pressure on then-president Viktor Yanukovych to hold off signing a trade deal with Europe, and soon afterwards, pro-European Ukrainians deposed him. Three years later, it’s hard to imagine amicable talks between Russia, Ukraine and the EU — but the opportunity was once there.
Elsewhere, as with Ukraine, Russia may only want relatively modest economic advantages and a seat at the table. In pushing for better trade terms and more security, Putin is more predictable than the mercurial Donald Trump. It needn’t be zero sum.
In the Middle East, for example, Russia wants to sell its weapons and do energy-related deals with Turkey and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. and Europe lose nothing by allowing that and working with Russia against common terrorist threats. The United Nations Security Council appears to have recognized that by backing a Syrian ceasefire sponsored by Russia and Turkey; it’s largely holding so far.
To many in the West, Putin destroyed the possibility of such plain dealing with his militant misbehavior. The default was to think in terms of retribution. The reality is that Russia is a major nuclear power that no country, including the U.S., wants to take on militarily. Comprehensive, Iran-style sanctions are also impossible because a cornered Putin might make even more aggressive moves, perhaps even testing North Atlantic Treaty Organization cohesion.
This may be unpleasant, both to Western leaders and to Russians hoping for a more democratic government in their country. But there’s no point in denying it. Since 2014, Putin’s tactical goal has been to demonstrate the uselessness of half-hearted containment policies, the impossibility of an open war and the unifying effect a perceived external threat can have on Russians.
The demonstration has been persuasive. It has also hurt U.S. prestige in the world and created new threats to the EU. But because many Western politicians still act unconvinced, Putin feels forced to continue his saber-rattling and his disruptive KGB-style forays into Western domestic politics. Neither Putin nor the elite around him wants to keep playing the bad guy. Many of them celebrated Trump’s victory because to them, it meant a potential respite.
A genuine attempt by Western leaders to find common ground would, of course, be labeled appeasement. Rather, it would be a powerful move to undermine Putin’s long-term ascendancy. Even the botched “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations during Barack Obama’s first term nearly had a disastrous effect on his rule: Russia’s increasing inclusion in the Western world’s economy under that policy enriched and emboldened Moscow’s middle class, and by 2011, it was ready to protest electoral fraud and search for new leaders.
The current hostilities, by contrast, are only strengthening Putin’s hold on power and weakening his pro-Western opponents, who barely register on most Russians’ radars anymore. Paradoxically, the achievement of Putin’s ultimate strategic goals could lead to change that would eventually destroy what is seen as the Russian threat today.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
The thin controller
Source: New Statesman
How Seumas Milne – a Winchester-educated Guardian left-winger – became Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor and one of the most powerfully divisive figures in the Labour Party.
In October 2014, the Guardian journalist Seumas Milne arrived in the Russian city of Sochi on the Black Sea coast, near the Georgian border. He was there to attend the annual Valdai international discussion club where Russia experts from across the world – academics, diplomats, journalists – meet and sometimes question President Vladimir Putin and some of his top officials and advisers. The theme of that year’s conference was “The World Order: New Rules or No Rules?”. Milne, his expenses paid by the Russian business people who organise the event and started it a decade earlier, was there to talk about the Middle East, a subject of which he has compendious knowledge, derived from a lifetime interest in the region.
To his surprise, Milne was asked, while in Sochi, to chair the meeting’s key session, where Putin was to make a 40-minute speech – later described by the Financial Times as one of his “most important foreign policy statements” – followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session. Milne agreed and opened the questions by asking two of his own. Were Russia’s “actions in Ukraine and Crimea” (which Moscow had recently invaded) “a response to [a] breakdown of rules and a sort of example of a ‘no-rules’ order”? And would Russia alter its position that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it “can’t lead in the current global order but it can decide who leads”?
Innocuous as the questions may have seemed, controversy over Milne’s role at Valdai followed quickly, particularly at the Guardian. Like a number of other British and American critics of Putin, leading figures on the paper’s foreign desk argued that, after the invasion of Crimea, it was no longer acceptable for Westerners to attend Valdai. These people were legitimising an aggressive and authoritarian regime that paid little regard to human rights. Valdai was aimed solely at projecting the Kremlin line.
On the left-wing blog Left Foot Forward, Pierre Vaux, a writer closely associated with a New York think tank set up by anti-Putin exiles, argued that Milne was performing “front-of-house PR duties” with the president. Milne had long been a Kremlin “fellow-traveller”, Vaux said; now he was behaving like “a direct advocate, an agent of influence”. His questions allowed Putin “the space to not only justify Russian actions in Ukraine . . . but also to grandstand about Russia’s humble and well-meaning place in the world”. Vaux pointed out that, a few days after his visit to Sochi, Milne’s weekly Guardian column blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the US and the EU backing “the violent overthrow of an elected if corrupt government”.
Vaux stirred the pot by quoting the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding as saying that to attend Valdai was to become “a puppet in the Kremlin’s theatre, there to make Putin look good”. The row spilled over into the paper’s offices in King’s Cross, London. Milne and Harding exchanged angry emails. When Harding – who has published a book about Putin’s Russia called Mafia State as well as accounts of how he was harassed during his four-year spell in Moscow – wrote that the Kremlin was guilty of funding far-right groups in Europe, they clashed at one of the paper’s daily editorial conferences. Milne’s mobile phone rang in the middle of the exchange. “That must be the Kremlin,” joked Harding, which, far from defusing the tension, took it to new levels. Voices were raised and the two men clashed in the newsroom and even the urinals after the meeting. “We don’t normally have angry words at the Guardian,” a shocked witness told me later.
There the matter might have rested, with the controversy, dismissed by many journalists as a turf war between writers jealous of their territory, confined to little-read online publications and of interest only to Russia specialists. But a year after he went to Sochi, Milne was appointed director of strategy and communications for the Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The national press took a sudden interest in his attendance at the Valdai meeting. “Red handed!” screeched the Mail, showing photographs of Putin shaking Milne’s hand and watching sternly as the columnist invited questions. “Corbyn’s pro-Kremlin spin chief held in Putin’s iron grip at propaganda summit.” Milne was bizarrely criticised for not interrogating Putin as Jeremy Paxman would have interrogated a British politician.
Milne had become another target in the press assault on Corbyn and his supporters, mounted mostly, but not entirely, by right-wing papers. After more than ten years of writing columns from a firmly left-wing viewpoint, many of them about international issues, Milne provided ample ammunition. He had argued that the killing of Lee Rigby, “a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan . . . wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians”. Two days after the 9/11 attacks, in an article that attracted a record 6,000 readers’ emails (roughly divided evenly for and against him), Milne wrote that Americans were “reaping a dragons’ teeth harvest they themselves sowed”. After 7/7, he claimed that the London bombings were “driven by worldwide anger at US-led domination and occupation of Muslim countries” and, given that Britain was a firm supporter of the US, the only surprise was that they had been “so long coming”. At an anti-Israel rally in 2014, he said Palestinians in Gaza were not terrorists: “the terrorism is the killing of civilians by Israel on an industrial scale”. And, according to Milne, Russia under Putin “provided some check to unbridled US power”.
Many such comments were wrenched out of context by right-wing papers. For example, Milne wrote of Lee Rigby that “the random butchery of an unarmed man far from the conflict by disconnected individuals who have non-violent political alternatives is clearly unjustifiable”. Nearly everything he has written about Putin describes him as authoritarian, conservative and definitely not “progressive”. Moreover, on the contribution of Western policies to terror attacks, views similar to Milne’s can be found across the Western political spectrum and even among senior diplomats and military figures, never mind across all sections of society in Africa and Asia.
Most newspaper columns are intended to surprise and provoke readers; predictable, orthodox, moderately expressed opinions are the province of politicians. Yet critics argue that Milne’s views are peculiarly hardline and extreme. Harding isn’t the only Guardian colleague with whom he has clashed. In October 2015, Brian Whitaker, the paper’s former Middle East editor, recalled on his blog al-bab.com a conversation with Milne in 1990 about the fate of Farzad Bazoft, a UK-based freelance journalist working in Iraq for the Observer. Bazoft, who had been making inquiries about a military site and taking soil samples nearby, was arrested and accused of being an Israeli spy working for the West. He was hanged on the orders of Saddam Hussein.
Whitaker was “startled when he [Milne] sought to justify Bazoft’s arrest” though not his execution. “He views international politics almost entirely through an anti-imperialist lens,” Whitaker wrote. That led him “to a sympathetic view of those dictatorial regimes which characterise themselves as anti-imperialist”. Milne, Whitaker said to me recently, “regards the people who want liberty in the Middle East as mostly Western stooges” and “never seems to express any libertarian instincts at all, either of the left or the right”. Whitaker’s concern is that Milne’s view of Britain’s historic role in the Middle East is even less subtle than Corbyn’s. “Britain’s relationship with repressive (but West-friendly) regimes,” Whitaker wrote last year, “and the Cameron government’s apparent determination to prioritise trade – including arms sales – over human rights are issues that desperately need serious public debate . . . Corbyn has shown a commendable willingness to raise them.” But can he do that with credibility “when his spin doctor has shown so much sympathy for anti-Western regimes that have been no less repressive”?
Similar questions are common even among those broadly sympathetic to Corbyn. Are Milne’s opinions too consistently and uncompromisingly left-wing? Does “the Thin Controller”, as he is known at the Guardian, have a sufficiently flexible mind to persuade Corbyn to fine-tune his message and make the compromises necessary in front-line politics? Can he help the Labour leader appeal to a wider audience? Does he even want to?
Milne is a clever man. Nobody I spoke to doubted that, though one source added that “he has little wisdom”. He is also well read, with several enormous filing cabinets at the Guardian, of the sort banished from most newspaper offices decades ago, full of books, reports and pamphlets. His desk was covered with a mountain of paper visible from the opposite side of the office which, from time to time, would slide slowly towards his neighbours. “He’s often the best-informed person in the room on any subject,” said a Guardian colleague. “He knows a lot of history and could probably walk you through all the prime ministers of Israel since 1948 without missing a beat. The knowledge is almost scholarly.” But the other side of him, said the same colleague, is that “he cherry-picks what he reads in an almost unintelligent way; he has a closed mind and an unpersuadable one”.
Another colleague at the Guardian told me: “Seumas is one of the most wholly political people I’ve ever met. He thinks of everything politically. He has a project and it’s political, not journalistic.” A third Guardian journalist said that his written output for the paper was never large. When he became a columnist, he rarely wrote more than one column a week. “He got a reputation for laziness. But I think that’s unfair. It’s just that he was doing other things, political things.” A fourth source said: “He sees himself as an activist who happens to work for a newspaper. He will tell you something and you’ll say ‘that’s a good story’ but he won’t write it for the paper because it wouldn’t go down well with the comrades.”
Some journalists saw him as a slightly sinister, furtive, cold figure, always pacing the corridors while on his mobile phone, talking almost daily to his close friend George Galloway, whom he addressed as “chief”. One colleague described him as “a natural plotter”, never happier than when taking part in a caucus or cabal. Older hands recall his leading role in the Gulshan group in the early 1990s, named after an Indian restaurant where members met to plan resistance to what they saw as a rightward, downmarket drift at the Guardian. When, around the same time, an obscure magazine called Casablanca, now defunct, ran a scathing anonymous critique of how the Guardian was abandoning its liberal-left heritage, Milne was widely suspected as the main informant, particularly when his friend Tariq Ali confessed to being the author. Others recall his curious closeness to Peter Mandelson, the two apparently brought together by a love of plotting and a mutual loathing of Gordon Brown.
But colleagues also emphasise Milne’s charm and his calm, rather understated manner. “He nearly always sounds reasonable and sensible,” a colleague said. “He’s not a coiled spring waiting to have a row, like most people on the left.” Some said they thought a more human, caring side emerged after he took time off work to have a tumour removed from a lung and when, in 2013, his sister, Kirsty, a former New Statesman journalist, died at 49 from lung cancer. Many journalists acknowledge with gratitude his role in maintaining the Guardian chapel (union branch), which he led for many years, as one of the strongest in the industry, with a house agreement that still rules out compulsory redundancies. “The management always knew that, if necessary, he could deliver a strike,” said one.
Gary Younge, one of Milne’s closest friends on the paper, says: “Having been a Trot at 15, for a short period, I have some experience of rigid and doctrinaire socialists. Those are the people I find tiresome and boring. Seumas isn’t one of those. If you’re having an argument, he will engage with it, respond to what you’re saying.”
Becky Gardiner, who was also close to Milne at the Guardian and is now a lecturer in journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “Seumas is completely upfront about what he thinks. It’s ridiculous to accuse him of being secretive. When he talks on his mobile, it’s in a very loud voice. You know exactly who he’s talking to and what about.”
She, Younge and several other journalists agree that although his writing is hardly a bundle of fun and rarely contains a personal anecdote, Milne in person is nothing like the humourless leftist of popular caricature. “When you have a conversation with him,” Gardiner said, “you laugh a lot.” His friends are passionately loyal, perhaps surprisingly so, given his habit of arriving as much as an hour late for assignations. He has an impressive array of leftist contacts across the world, particularly in the Middle East and Latin America; in the past, they included Yasser Arafat and Hugo Chávez. “He’d always be coming into the office clutching an article for publication, saying something like, ‘This is from an excellent Turkish trade unionist,’” said a senior editor.
Outside politics, he seems to have little hinterland (his interest in sport is said to be zero) apart from popular music. He is awesomely knowledgeable about the Beatles and an enthusiast for the Rolling Stones; he also plays the guitar and sometimes the piano. He lives with his Italian wife, Cristina, in an Edwardian house in the leafy south-west London suburb of Richmond. Curiously, and not very ecologically, he usually drove to the Guardian’s offices and used the car throughout the day in London when he had a company parking space. Though Richmond’s state schools are wholly comprehensive, both of his children, now grown up, went to grammar schools in Kingston-upon-Thames, four miles away. Friends tell me that Milne – who declined to be interviewed for this article – refuses to discuss the subject but sometimes points out that the father isn’t the only member of a family who makes choices about the children’s education and that, in a truly democratic home, he can be comfortably outvoted.
If his own views have ever deviated from left orthodoxy on comprehensive schools – because he rarely writes or speaks about education, I could find no public statement of them – it would be a surprise. It is hard to discover any significant examples from the past 40 years of Milne changing his opinions, or even interrogating them. Born in 1958, he is a child of the 1970s, the last decade in which large numbers of people still believed that the near future belonged to socialism. “His political opinions stopped developing in 1975, along with his musical tastes,” was a colleague’s comment.
Milne’s cleverness won him a scholarship and a free place at Winchester, one of England’s most exclusive, cerebral and expensive fee-charging boarding schools, and later a scholarship place at Balliol, reputedly Oxford’s most intellectual college, to read philosophy, politics and economics.
As he left school, after taking his A-levels at 15 and his Oxford entrance exam at 16 – a common practice at Winchester – one-third of the world’s population was living under regimes that claimed to follow socialism in one form or another. In Britain, a Labour government had Michael Foot and Tony Benn in senior cabinet positions; raised the top rate on earned income to 83 per cent and that on investment income to 98 per cent; tried to control prices and incomes across the economy; nationalised British Leyland and established a National Enterprise Board. Many young Britons admired Mao Zedong and his “permanent revolution” in China. Many privately educated young people from elite backgrounds embraced revolutionary politics, as Milne did.
Not that his family was “establishment” in quite the conventional sense. His father, Alasdair, a producer at the BBC who became director general in 1982, was also a Wykehamist, but revelled in his Scottish roots, playing the bagpipes and speaking Gaelic. He was among the pioneers of a less deferential style at the BBC, and was sacked in 1987 largely because Margaret Thatcher thought that the corporation, under his command, was too biased in favour of the left. His wife, Sheila, Seumas’s mother, had an Irish-Danish background and was once an actor.
Though not a Tory, Alasdair Milne was certainly not a hardline left-winger. But nobody can remember his son being anything else. At Winchester, he stood as a Maoist in a mock election. The Conservative cabinet minister John Whittingdale, a contemporary of his at school, triumphantly produced printed evidence of this episode when Milne was appointed as an aide to Corbyn. He spent his gap year with friends in Lebanon, then in the throes of civil war. There, he learned Arabic, heard shots fired in anger, escaped from a blown-up building and was briefly captured by militiamen. Colleagues at the Guardian dismiss allegations that he attended a terrorist training camp as ludicrous. But he returned with a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause.
“He spent his entire time at Balliol,” a college contemporary recalls, “wearing a Mao jacket and talking with a fake Palestinian accent. It was like performance art, the sort of thing Gilbert and George would do. He launched a string of motions in the JCR [junior common room] attacking Israel.” (Guardian colleagues say he is still in the habit of adopting the accent of whoever he has most recently talked to.)
It was clear even then, both to Milne and to his fellow students, that he would devote his life to left-wing politics.
After leaving Oxford with a second-class degree, he went to Birkbeck College, University of London, to take an MA in economics, a subject he thought crucial to politics. He applied unsuccessfully to work for Labour’s Barbara Castle, who was generally considered to be on the left of the party, and for the TUC’s economics department.
Milne’s relationship with the Communist Party was close. After university, he did some work for a monthly journal called Straight Left, which, though most of its board members were left-wing Labour MPs and union leaders, became associated with the “Stalinist”, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction that eventually split from the Communist Party of Great Britain. It was through Straight Left that he met Andrew Murray, who became one of his closest friends. Murray, originally a Morning Star journalist, became the first chair of the Stop the War campaign when it was formed in 2001, and in 2011 was appointed chief of staff for the Unite trade union. Francis Beckett, who has written a book about the Communist Party and worked for several trade unions, described Murray to me as “extremely rigid and sectarian”. He added: “Murray and the Straight Left people were more extreme than most of the Stalinists I knew. The Stalinists were known as tankies, but Murray’s lot were super-tankies.”
Milne has always denied ever being a CP member but Beckett said “all the communists I know think he was in the party”. Whatever the truth – and there is no tangible evidence that he was a member – Milne had joined Labour by 1979. It was not then unusual, particularly in the union movement, for Labour supporters to work closely with Communists, whose discipline and organisation they admired and who shared a loathing of the “ultra-leftists” associated with various groups that went loosely under the label “Trotskyist”. Among those elected to the National Union of Students executive on the “Broad Left” ticket of Labour, Liberals and Communists was Charles Clarke, a future Labour cabinet minister.
It was not through left-wing connections that Milne secured his start in a Fleet Street career. In a textbook example of the British establishment at work, a highly-placed source told me Alasdair Milne (Winchester and New College, Oxford) recommended his son Seumas (Winchester and Balliol) to Andrew Knight (Ampleforth and Balliol), the then editor of the Economist. The young Milne stayed for three years, covering local government, education and the motor industry, but Knight, though he recognised Milne’s intellectual abilities, thought, rightly, that he was uncomfortable with the magazine’s free-market line. Knight went to his old and very close friend the Guardian columnist Hugo Young (Ampleforth and Balliol) and asked if the Guardian might be interested. The paper hired Milne in 1984.
Initially a general news reporter, Milne became a labour correspondent in 1990 and later the paper’s labour editor. His strong connections with union and Labour Party activists, what a Guardian colleague called “his unrivalled knowledge of the labour movement” and his own election in 1989 as a member of the National Union of Journalists executive council seemed to make him a perfect fit for the job. Moreover, he had recently written with two others – an academic who had been a contemporary at Balliol and a prominent figure in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, a pro-nationalisation pressure group – a book called Beyond the Casino Economy, which advocated extended “trade union statutory rights” and “a society based on common ownership where the working class and its allies hold political power”. In 1994 he published another book, The Enemy Within, showing how the British secret services infiltrated and set out to discredit the National Union of Mineworkers and its leader Arthur Scargill during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Though widely regarded as too uncritical of Scargill – who gave Milne the co-operation he denied to most mainstream journalists – it was warmly reviewed, went through four editions (the latest of these in 2014) and is regarded by many journalists as an investigative classic.
By the mid-1990s, however, the labour brief began to look like a dead end. For one thing, Milne, seen as fastidious, aloof and slightly arrogant, did not get on well with some union leaders and labour correspondents. “He stuck out like a sore thumb among the labour correspondents who were the very opposite of a public school elite,” recalled Paul Routledge, who was then the labour editor at the Times. “He mixed with a select left strand of the union movement. He didn’t really get on, or want to get on with, the more hairy-arsed tendency. If he had met the miners I knew, who have some very old-fashioned ideas about life, he would have run a mile.” With Milne much sought after as a speaker at labour movement events, other correspondents joked that they would go to cover a conference and he would go to speak at it.
But there was a second, bigger problem. The trade unions were losing membership and influence; their leaders, particularly Scargill, were being marginalised. After the advent of New Labour in 1994, it became clear that, for the foreseeable future, they would have little role in mainstream British politics. The labour correspondents declined in parallel. A group that had once been a national reporting elite, second only to political reporters, dwindled in numbers and importance.
Several, including Routledge, eventually switched to covering politics in the Westminster lobby. It seemed likely that Milne would make a similar move at the Guardian. Instead, to the surprise of many colleagues, the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger offered him a job that gave Milne potentially more influence over the direction of leftist debate and political thinking than he had ever enjoyed before.
Milne was comment editor of the Guardian from 2001 to 2007, supervising regular columnists such as Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot and inviting outsiders to contribute, among them politicians, academics and union leaders as well as journalists. These were the years when the Blairite project – anathema to Milne and his friends – began to unravel and Britain became sharply divided over the Iraq War. Yet, at first, colleagues were impressed with the spectrum of views he published, from right and left.
“He was meticulous about it,” said Becky Gardiner, who worked as his deputy for four years. “Whatever the issue, he broke it down into constituent parts, looked at all the angles and represented as many of them as possible in the pages.” He was particularly anxious to increase the number of female contributors, and insisted that there should be at least one a day. He also, said a colleague, kept a tally of pro- and anti-Israel articles “so that he could cover himself”.
Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, hailed Milne’s achievement in turning the Guardian’s comment section into “a truly global debating forum”. More surprisingly, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan said he had made it “the most thought-provoking opinion section in Britain”.
Staff at the Guardian, however, are divided about Milne’s record as comment editor. As time went on and controversy over the Iraq War and Islamist terrorism grew, the number of Muslim radicals appearing in the pages increased. Left-wing friends such as Andrew Murray featured frequently. When the Blairite and pro-war columnist David Aaronovitch, recruited to the G2 section from the Independent in 2003, asked to move to the comment pages, Milne allegedly vetoed it and frequently referred (perhaps half jokingly, at least) to “the hated Aaronovitch”. Aaronovitch confirmed to me that his request, taken to the highest Guardian levels, was repeatedly ignored but said he had no idea whether or not Milne was responsible; he soon left for the Times. “Seumas put a lot of stuff into the paper that had no merit as writing,” said a senior Guardian figure. “Yes, he published right-wing people but they were usually iconoclasts who would say radical, surprising things and turned out to be against the Iraq War. He avoided the policy arguments taking place in the main parties.” His eclectic policies, critics thought, were just a way of making the publication of his far-left allies more acceptable.
The biggest row during Milne’s reign as comment editor came over his publication of an article by Osama Bin Laden, edited from one of the many taped statements the al-Qaeda leader put out, in 2004. An overwhelming majority of Guardian journalists thought the paper was right to publish the piece but a smaller majority thought it should not have been on the comment pages. Milne and his supporters insisted that its insights into what drove al-Qaeda justified its prominent position – particularly as Bin Laden’s views received wide attention across the Middle East – and that publishing opinions on the comment pages did not imply an endorsement of them. These arguments were backed by the Guardian’s readers’ editor, or ombudsman.
But by 2007 Milne’s critics had won. It was felt, I was told, that he was building up too many writers in his own mould and that he carried too many articles about Palestine. He was made associate editor and moved to writing a column, a weekly, rather lonely expression of views that had once represented a significant strand of mainstream left-wing opinion in Britain but had now apparently gone out of fashion for ever. Then came the call from Corbyn.
Dealing with Labour leaders was not entirely new to Milne. He and Ed Miliband had been friends for some years and, after Miliband was elected leader in 2010, Milne was among those consulted about his first party conference speech. The two continued to talk regularly, though less so as Milne became increasingly disappointed with Miliband’s lukewarm attitude towards fighting on a left-wing programme.
Corbyn knew Milne from the anti-war movement and in recent years had spoken with him at rallies and meetings. The two had also travelled together, with other MPs and activists, to Israel and Palestine. They were not, however, intimates. But when he became leader, Corbyn desperately needed somebody sympathetic to his views and also familiar with the mainstream media. Usually, a party leader comes to power with years of preparation, a firm base of parliamentary support, wide media experience and a trusted cohort of advisers. Corbyn had none of that: even his astonishingly successful campaign, primarily a social media operation, was organised by a group called Red Labour, spawned by a Facebook page started by a Brighton-based Labour activist whom Corbyn had never met. An infrastructure of union shop stewards, academics, the “peace movement”, union-financed research and constituency activists which had sustained Labour’s left in the early 1980s – and almost won the deputy leadership for Tony Benn – had all but disappeared over the following decades. The Labour Party staff largely dated from the Blair and Brown eras and their political thinking and loyalties echoed that. Corbyn knew almost nobody in the national press or broadcasting, even among the writers and reporters on the Daily Mirror and the Guardian.
His first approach was to Kevin Maguire, the New Statesman political diarist and Mirror associate editor. He turned Corbyn down as he had once turned down a position in Downing Street during Gordon Brown’s premiership. Milne also hesitated. Partly thanks to his assiduous campaigning, Katharine Viner had recently succeeded Rusbridger as Guardian editor. Viner, it was thought, might take the Guardian more to the left, though the paper backed Yvette Cooper, not Corbyn, in the 2015 Labour leadership election. Milne could reasonably expect to play a prominent and influential role in the new regime. Some friends advised him to turn down the offer, arguing that Corbyn couldn’t last.
But Milne felt an obligation to respond to a Labour leadership for which he had waited nearly all his life. Thanks to a clause in the Guardian’s house agreement that he had himself negotiated some years earlier (it was intended to help save money during one of the paper’s financial crises), he was able to persuade Viner to agree to him taking “unpaid leave of absence” while remaining on the staff. Her decision was widely criticised among Guardian staff. Milne has now become part of the Corbyn story; some members of the political team feel inhibited from writing about a colleague and fear that Milne may complain about them to Viner.
In his new job, Milne has little direct contact with lobby journalists; except on big issues, they are briefed by Kevin Slocombe, a former trade union head of communications. Milne’s responsibilities are to develop a strategy for media relations and to oversee focus groups and private polling. He brings his deep knowledge of the labour movement. As a former chair of Hammersmith Labour Party in west London, Milne organised an election campaign for the then local MP, Clive (now Lord) Soley, and attended annual conferences as a delegate. His biggest weakness, as most lobby journalists see it, is that he is even less flexible in his views than Corbyn.
“His instincts are to be unwavering on every issue,” said one. “He is more Corbynista than Corbyn. He pressed for a three-line whip on Syria and a shadow cabinet that more closely reflected Corbyn’s views. On the day Labour was launching its EU referendum campaign, Corbyn went to speak at an anti-Trident rally. A good spin doctor would have advised him not to go. Seumas actually went with him.”
Another source, close to the leader’s office, criticised Milne for not shutting down repeated allegations that Corbyn and other leading figures in Labour are too soft on, and even sympathetic to, anti-Semitism. “Milne encourages Jeremy to parade his values, saying he’s against prejudice of all kinds, rather than straightforwardly denouncing anti-Semitism.” The same source said: “Milne puts ideology above good management of the team. That is why there have been so many rows.”
Nevertheless, after an understandably slow start, there are signs that he has begun to knock the Corbyn operation into more professional shape. As a tidy dresser – fashionable and youthful-looking, he abandoned Mao jackets for suits some years ago – he understands that radicals should not detract from their message by dressing sloppily. He has therefore introduced what lobby journalists call “Project Suit” for Corbyn, so far getting him into a matching jacket and trousers. He is also trying to educate him in the elementary political skill of saying what he wants to say during interviews, rather than answering every question literally. He wants to refine the Corbyn message into two or three flagship policies. These are unlikely, I am told, to include anything on defence or foreign affairs, areas on which Labour is most divided internally. Milne, contrary to some reports, is not personally very exercised over Trident, but he recognises that it is hard for Corbyn to drop or even downplay the issue, because it was so central to his campaign. Nor is Milne, again contrary to reports, at all keen on mandatory reselection of MPs, with its echoes of the 1980s.
In recent weeks, the Corbyn team has become more proactive in setting the political agenda, demanding an inquiry into the offshore funds owned by David Cameron’s father and a reversal of cuts in capital gains tax, even if it has been too eager to call for senior ministerial resignations whenever there is a period of difficulty for the Tories. On economics in particular, it has begun to offer a more coherent critique of the government’s strategy: more confident, in some ways, than what Ed Miliband offered, as one of the former leader’s aides admitted to me.
Some of this is attributed to Milne. A few lobby journalists who remember the ranting, expletive-strewn style of former Labour spin doctors such as Tom Baldwin have begun to warm to his calm, reserved manner. Yet even those who like Milne suggest that his experience of the media is too limited. “He doesn’t understand the rhythms of news,” one reporter told me. “He doesn’t understand what Sunday newspapers want or what the main broadcasting channels want. He doesn’t even engage with the BBC properly.”
When Milne took up the job last October, his more sceptical colleagues at the Guardian predicted he would be back in the office by Christmas. It is perhaps more realistic to expect him back before next Christmas. Rumours of a summer coup by Labour MPs against Corbyn persist and, even if his successor is also on the Labour left, he or she is unlikely to retain so controversial a figure. It is not impossible that sacrificing Milne could be a price that Corbyn has to pay to remain as leader.
Seumas Milne would probably not protest all that much. He has been heard to complain of tiredness and getting too few days off. He is bemused by the way falsehoods and distortions circulate at Westminster and into the media without ever being properly denied. He hates the intrusion into what he regards as his private life.
As he contemplates a constantly feuding Labour Party, a return to his filing cabinets and overburdened desk at the Guardian and to the company of reliable, ideologically sound comrades inside and outside the paper must look increasingly attractive. But in his own view, he will have done his duty to try to advance the socialist cause, as he has done, so often unavailingly, for more than four decades.