LONDON — In the court of Jeremy Corbyn, few wield more power and evoke stronger reactions than Seumas Milne.
The British Labour party leader’s director of communications and strategy, Milne is a hardline and uncompromising left-winger, and a fierce opponent of Israel. If Corbyn makes it to Downing Street, his most senior aide is likely to act as an outrider, reinforcing and encouraging an anti-Zionist agenda that will be unprecedented in a West European state.
“Israel would have to assume diplomatic relations were unofficially null and void,” says one Labour insider who, like others interviewed by The Times of Israel for this report, commented on condition of anonymity in order to speak more freely.
But Milne’s hostility to Israel and his hard-left politics are not a matter of mere speculation. Unlike many spin doctors and political strategists whose professional life has been largely lived behind the scenes, Milne has spent decades center stage.
Before joining Corbyn’s team in 2015, Milne was a longstanding senior journalist and columnist at The Guardian, Britain’s most prominent liberal daily newspaper. From that perch, he left a trail of writings that have landed him at the center of the continuing controversy over the Labour party’s refusal to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
Milne’s establishment credentials are impeccable. The son of a former director general of the BBC, he was educated at Winchester, one of Britain’s leading public schools, and then went on to study at Balliol College, Oxford.
As former editor of the center-left New Statesman magazine Peter Wilby noted in a 2016 profile of Milne: “Many privately educated young people from elite backgrounds [who came of age during the 1970s] embraced revolutionary politics.”
At boarding school, he stood as a Maoist in a mock election, while a gap year spent in Lebanon sowed an enduring sympathy for the Palestinians.
“He spent his entire time at Balliol wearing a Mao jacket and talking with a fake Palestinian accent,” one of Milne’s fellow students told Wilby. “It was like performance art, the sort of thing Gilbert and George [British artists] would do. He launched a string of motions in the JCR [junior common room] attacking Israel.”
But, unlike his contemporaries — though like his boss — Milne appears never to have outgrown his youthful support for the far left or antipathy toward the West.
Not a journalist, rather a ‘propagandist’
After a spell working for Straight Left, a political monthly that pushed a doggedly pro-Soviet agenda, and an incongruous stint at the free-market Economist magazine, Milne found a berth at The Guardian. He rose through the ranks, becoming the paper’s comment editor, a weekly columnist and associate editor.
“I never regarded him as a journalist, but as a propagandist,” says a former Guardian colleague. “The basics of reporting both sides of an argument were anathema to him.”
The basics of reporting both sides of an argument were anathema to him
Columnists are, of course, not bound by such conventions. However, even for the pages of the house journal of the British liberal-left, Milne’s views were frequently controversial.
A mere two days after 9/11, Milne filed a column that appeared under the headline, “They can’t see why they are hated.”
“Shock, rage and grief there has been aplenty,” he wrote. “But any glimmer of recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process — or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world — seems almost entirely absent.”
Americans, he suggested, were “once again reaping a dragons’ teeth harvest they themselves sowed.”
Prominent among the many American crimes Milne noted was the manner in which the US had “recklessly thrown its weight behind Israel’s 34-year illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian intifada rages.”
Milne adopted a similar stance when his own home city came under attack on July 7, 2005, blaming “the bloodbath unleashed by Bush and Blair in Iraq” for the suicide bombers’ deadly massacre on the London underground.
By sharp contrast, Milne frequently struck a rather more understanding note when it came to discussing Russia’s foreign policy. After Vladimir Putin occupied the Crimea in 2014, he argued that “Western aggression and lawless killing is on another scale entirely from anything Russia appears to have contemplated, let alone carried out — removing any credible basis for the US and its allies to rail against Russian transgressions.”
The Kremlin’s actions, he subsequently wrote, were “clearly defensive.”
It is not just modern-day Russia’s rulers for whom Milne appears to show a surprising indulgence.
“For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialization, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality,” Milne responded after the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly voted to condemn the “crimes of totalitarian communist regimes.”
‘Israel has no right to defend itself’
While Russia’s fears and insecurities are acknowledged and sympathized with by Milne, those of Israel most certainly are not.
Never was that more evident than when the Jewish state came under a barrage of Hamas rocket attacks in the summer of 2014.
He told an anti-Israel rally in 2014 that “Israel has no right to defend itself from territory it illegally occupies.”
He continued that Palestinians in Gaza have the right to “defend themselves,” and claimed, “It’s not terrorism to fight back. The terrorism is the killing of civilians by Israel on an industrial scale.”
“The idea that Israel is defending itself against unprovoked attacks from outside its borders is an absurdity,” Milne wrote in The Guardian. “The Palestinians of Gaza are an occupied people, like those in the West Bank, who have the right to resist, by force if they choose — though not deliberately to target civilians.”
His conclusion was equally unwavering: “The brutal reality is that there will be no end to Israel’s occupation until Palestinians and their supporters are able to raise its price to the occupier, in one way or another — and change the balance of power on the ground.”
Milne had offered near-identical arguments four years previously during the November 2012 Gaza war, which he coupled with warm words for Hamas.
“Emboldened by the wave of change and growing support across the region, Hamas has also regained credibility as a resistance force,” he argued. “The deployment of longer-range rockets that have now been shown to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is also beginning to shift what has been an overwhelmingly one-sided balance of deterrence.”
Nor was this a one-off. “Hamas is not broken and will not be broken because of the spirit of resistance of the Palestinian people,” Milne told a rally in 2009.
.@jeremycorbyn Communications Director Seumas Milne:
"Hamas is not broken and will not be broken because of the spirit of resistance of the Palestinian people"
Hamas are terrorists who want Jews & Israel wiped off the planet & @UKLabour don’t have issue W/ #LabourAntisemitism ???? pic.twitter.com/9IvW4gaqlj
— #LabourAntisemitism (@GnasherJew) March 31, 2018
Where radical New Left chic meets Stalinist cynicism
“Seumas Milne’s politics are guided by the far-left principle that anybody who stands in the way of American power is worth supporting,” says Dave Rich, author of “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism.”
“This might involve excusing Russian aggression, indulging Palestinian terrorism or ignoring Assadist war crimes,” Rich says. “He combines the 1960 New Left’s radical chic with a staggering degree of Stalinist cynicism, and has done so consistently throughout his time at the Guardian and in the Labour Party.”
These strands share a common thread. Noting that Milne has previously defended communist-run East Germany, the British journalist Nick Cohen noted in Die Welt last week that “The racism on the British left, in its content and tone, dates back to Stalin’s almost forgotten ‘anti-Zionist campaigns’ at the time of the Slansky trial and Doctors’ Plot.”
As his former Guardian colleague suggests, on Milne’s watch the paper’s comment section became “incredibly controversial, mainly due to his attitude to Israel.”
“It was surprising how it was tolerated, but he had more knowledge about the Middle East than most, and a relentlessness that no one else matched,” the colleague says.
Even Milne’s harshest critics do not doubt his encylopedic knowledge of the region.
“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,” another Guardian colleague confided to Wilby.
But, of course, Milne is not an academic — he is the most influential adviser to the man who may well become Britain’s next prime minister.
What’s in a definition
Unsurprisingly, last month there was speculation that Milne’s high-profile and vocal criticism of Israel may have played a part in Labour’s decision to reject key examples in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which relate to criticism of the Jewish state.
“All Milne’s [past] comments would likely have led to suspension and expulsion under that definition,” a Labour source told the Evening Standard newspaper.
In particular, Milne, it is alleged, breached the IHRA example which proscribes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
In 2009, for instance, he wrote in The Guardian: “The truth is that throughout the Arab, Muslim and wider developing worlds, the idea that Israel is a racist state is largely uncontroversial… This is a state, after all, created by European colonists, built on the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.”
“There’s a perfectly reasonable argument to be had about the nature of Israel’s racism and whether it should be compared to apartheid, for example,” he continued.
In the same year, Milne also told a rally that the creation of Israel was a “crime,” suggesting that “Palestine was promised by a British government that had no right to it, to another people.”
Milne’s defenders note that he has argued that the left “needs to aggressively police the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, taking into account Jewish sensitivities in the way it campaigns for justice in the Middle East.”
However, in the same column he also went on to dismiss the idea that left-wing supporters of Palestinian rights might be connected to anti-Semitism as a “smear” and “an absurd slur which is itself being used as an apologia for Israel’s brutal war of subjugation in the occupied territories.”
Milne did not respond to a request from The Times of Israel to comment.
While there have been reports that some of Corbyn’s key allies, such as Jon Lansman, head of the Momentum group, are now pushing for Labour to cut its losses and adopt the IHRA definition in full, insiders suggest that the Labour leadership is deeply split.
Lansman and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (himself no friend of Israel) are said to have adopted a pragmatic approach, arguing that the ongoing row is damaging Labour politically. But, backed by Milne and his chief of staff, Karie Murphy, Corbyn is said to be resisting any such move.
“This is the hill they are happy to die on,” a Labour source says. “Milne has realized this is politically career-destroying for him and Jeremy.”
This is the hill they are happy to die on
This division also represents a split between those, such as Corbyn and Milne, who view the IHRA furor as primarily a foreign policy issue about Israel, and those, such as Lansman and McDonnell, who see it through the domestic prism of reaching out to the Jewish community.
Richard Angell, director of the centrist organization Progress, is scathing in his assessment: “The Labour leadership would rather defend the rights of anti-Zionists to say whatever they like, including anti-Semitic slurs, over the right of Jewish people to play their full part in the Labour party.”
UK Jewish community’s apprehensions
Jewish community officials suspect that Milne, in the words of one, “has a grip on everything Labour does regarding the anti-Semitism issue.”
He is widely seen as a malign influence over Corbyn
“He is widely seen as a malign influence over Corbyn, and by extension over the Leader’s Office as a functioning unit,” says the official.
On occasion, Milne’s alleged interventions have an almost tragicomic edge. In 2016, he was accused of wanting to delete the words “Chag kasher v’sameach” (“have a happy and kosher holiday,” a traditional holiday greeting) from Corbyn’s Passover message to the Jewish community, apparently believing that “the use of Hebrew implied support for Zionism.”
The message ended up being released unedited and the Labour party subsequently described the allegation — made by a Jewish former aide to Corbyn — as “categorically untrue.”
But few in the Jewish community or Labour’s moderate wing regard the prospect of Milne advising a “prime minister Corbyn” with anything other than deep foreboding.
A Labour insider believes that Milne would assume the role of “de facto Foreign Secretary,” noting that his hand can already be seen in statements issued by Labour’s shadow foreign policy team.
New language has entered Labour’s narrative on the Israel-Palestine conflict; unqualified backing for the Palestinian “right to return” — never in evidence prior to Corbyn’s leadership — peppered speeches from the front bench during parliamentary debates on the violence at the Gaza border this spring. References to Hamas terrorism are now rare.
Milne, fears a senior Labour figure, would be “actively looking for opportunities to take an expressly hostile foreign policy towards Israel and an overly lenient one towards Israel’s opponents.”
While their foreign policy views are broadly similar, Milne’s talents strengthen Corbyn immeasurably.
“[Milne] has a focus on the issues that matter to him and an ability to screen out the irrelevant,” believes his former Guardian colleague. “As a result, he is rarely distracted. He has tremendous discretion and a cool judgement about others’ strengths and weaknesses.”
Moreover, it is Milne who brings the knowledge and overarching ideology to the somewhat crude, protest-rally sloganeering which constitutes Corbyn’s view of the world.
From Israel’s point of view, Corbyn would be dangerous in Downing Street. With Milne at his side, he would be doubly so.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”