Meet the Labour think tank guiding Keir Starmer’s path to power

LONDON — It began as a vehicle to stop the U.K. Labour Party from splitting under Jeremy Corbyn and to win back control from the hard left.

Now under Keir Starmer, Labour Together has evolved into a highly influential think tank quietly shaping the direction of the party which, according to current polling, is on course to form the next government.

Headed by Josh Simons, a former Harvard postdoc who has worked on AI ethics for Facebook, Labour Together divides its time between developing policy and measuring public opinion.

The think tank maintains a low profile in Westminster but has close links to Labour HQ — those who run it are in regular contact with senior officials including campaign director Morgan McSweeney, strategy director Deborah Mattinson and policy chief Stuart Ingham.

It’s also doing some serious fundraising, having amassed more than £1.8 million in donations since Starmer became leader in April 2020.

In party circles Labour Together is seen as particularly close to McSweeney, who was its director between 2017 and 2020 before he joined Starmer’s office, as well as Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves.

It also works with a number of other shadow Cabinet ministers and their teams. Nearly all the MPs credited with building Labour Together since 2017 — Reeves, Wes Streeting, Shabana Mahmood, Steve Reed, Bridget Phillipson, Lucy Powell and Lisa Nandy — now sit in Starmer’s top team.

“We work closely with them to make sure what they are doing matches up with what Labour HQ is doing,” a shadow Cabinet minister said. “I’d be surprised if they weren’t working with the majority of shadow Cabinet teams.”

Last week POLITICO’s London Influence newsletter reported that Labour Together had appointed an advisory board to help set its direction. It includes Cambridge political economy professor Helen Thompson, New Labour-era minister Alan Milburn and, intriguingly, pollster Andrew Cooper, who worked for former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

Those running the think tank say the intention is to first help Labour win and then make Starmer’s government a two-term project. “To do the things that Labour wants to do you need two terms,” one of those involved said.

“I was proud to take over an organization that played such a vital role in ridding our party of antisemitism, making Labour electable again, and uniting the party around Keir Starmer,” director Simons told POLITICO. “Now, Labour Together has relaunched as a political think tank. We bring together political strategy and policy, recruit brilliant talent from within and outside politics, and build networks that will help Labour win and deliver its agenda.”

Keeping Labour together

Labour Together was set up as Labour for the Common Good by Cruddas, Reed and Nandy in 2015 to learn lessons from Miliband’s election defeat to Cameron earlier that year.

After veteran left winger Corbyn became leader, its founders decided to turn it into a vehicle to save the Labour party. It was re-launched in 2017 with the unofficial purpose to literally keep Labour together by dissuading moderate MPs from starting a breakaway group, and eventually wrest back control from the hard left.

“The idea was to keep people talking,” one of the MPs involved with it said. “It was an attempt to keep the party together whoever was leader.”

McSweeney was the group’s director at the time. He focused his efforts on learning who the droves of new members who joined Labour during Corbyn’s leadership were, and whether they could be brought around to endorsing a new leader the public could accept.

At the time Labour Together worked from offices in Vauxhall, south London, which had a pirate flag on the wall — testament to its quasi-insurgent status.

Corbyn resigned after losing the 2019 general election to Boris Johnson. This was McSweeney’s chance to put his research into fruition. He was seconded from Labour Together to be campaign director for Starmer, who won the ensuing Labour leadership contest with a resounding 56.2 percent of members’ votes in the first round. McSweeney then joined Starmer’s team as chief of staff.

“It would have been quite easy then to say Labour Together’s mission was accomplished,” the person involved with the think tank quoted earlier said. “The thing that changed is what looked like was going to be a long, multi-term project of Labour becoming a potential government again all happened within two years.”

New impetus

When Johnson became prime minister with an 80-seat majority, most MPs thought he would be in power for a decade. Labour officials were equally convinced the road to detoxifying the party and regaining electability would prove a long term project.

But the last few years of political chaos under the Tories have given Labour a steady 18-point lead in the polls and put Starmer on track to become prime minister.

In late 2022, around the time that Liz Truss’ premiership was unraveling and the Tories were preparing for their second leadership contest in three months, Labour Together was given a new lease of life. Key Starmer allies such as Mahmood have been pivotal to its new phase.

Part of the impetus came from shadow Cabinet ministers who thought Labour’s policy development needed an injection of energy. “The primary concern among the politicians involved was that they needed to drive a generation of policy to fill a void,” according to a Labour official who was close to the discussions at the time.

Simons, who resigned as an aide to Corbyn over his handling of antisemitism, was enlisted at that point to take charge of the group..

Moving onward

Under Simons the group has modeled itself on Onward, the center right think tank which is close to Rishi Sunak’s Downing Street.

Over the next year Labour Together plans to publish policy papers on investment, technology and artificial intelligence, climate, constitutional reform, and geopolitics including China. It has also hired former pollster Chris Curtis to ramp up its polling operation in the run-up to the election.

The think tank has already become a target for lobbying by tech giants seeking to influence Labour’s thinking in the hotly-contested space around AI regulation. Simons — who according to his LinkedIn profile worked for four years as a visiting research scientist developing AI ethics principles for Facebook — published a book this year on democracy and AI.

Labour Together’s three biggest donors since Starmer became leader in April 2020 are the hedge fund manager Martin Taylor, who has given the think tank nearly £1 million, financier Trevor Chinn and car glass repair tycoon Gary Lubner.

Ben Thornton, co-founder of the comms agency 5654 & Co, said: “If you’re only hearing about Labour Together for the first time you haven’t been paying attention … Businesses should be partnering to help inform their thinking now. And expect them to be an important fixture on the think tank circuit if Labour win power.”

“The next election is far from decided. Labour Together is looking to that election and beyond it. Britain is in a terrible state after 13 years of Conservative government,” Simons added. “Labour Together is focused on how Labour can pick up the pieces and help Britain thrive.”

John Johnston contributed reporting.