John McTernan

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Person.png John McTernan  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
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Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh

John McTernan (born 1959) is a former Special Adviser to the Labour Party, political strategist and commentator.[1]


McTernan was Tony Blair's Director of Political Operations from 2005 to 2007. He then worked on the November 2007 Australian Labor Party federal election campaign. From 2007 to 2010 he was Special Adviser to two Cabinet Ministers in Gordon Brown's Labour Government: first to Des Browne, Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Defence,[2] and then to Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy MP from 2008 until May 2010.

From June 2010 to October 2011 he was a columnist at The Scotsman, and then Director of Communications for the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, from September 2011 to June 2013.[3]

He was Chief of Staff to the 2014–2015 leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Jim Murphy, who resigned after the Labour Party lost all but one seat in Scotland, including Murphy's, in the 2015 General Election.[4]

Stand-up comedian Mark Steel couldn't resist commenting in August 2016:

"Then there’s John McTernan, the former adviser to Jim Murphy, who insists that Corbyn will be a catastrophe, and that the party should continue with the strategy he devised in Scotland, which took the party’s MPs from 41 to a much more manageable one, making it far easier to deal with admin."[5]


John McTernan strongly opposed Jeremy Corbyn during the 2015 Labour Party leadership election, describing Corbyn's popularity as a "strange psychological emotional spasm". He asserted:

"I can’t see any case for letting him have two minutes in office, let alone two years in office because I think the damage that will be done to the Labour party in that period makes it incredibly hard to recover."[6]

In a podcast discussion with the Spectator's Isabel Hardman and Sebastian Payne, McTernan nailed his colours to the Blairite mast by declaring:

"Who cares about the grassroots?"[7]

Use the rule book

One month after Corbyn's election with an overwhelming mandate, McTernan described how he could easily be removed as Leader of the Labour Party by following the rule book, which states:

"When the Parliamentary Labour Party is in opposition in the House of Commons, the election of the leader and the deputy leader shall take place at each annual session of Party conference."

Next year’s Labour conference needs to have an election with only one candidate. Not one apart from Corbyn, but only one. The PLP can do that because they control nomination rights. Their task is to ensure that when the annual leadership is held then Corbyn doesn’t meet the threshold. We know his support wasn’t sufficient to get him on the ballot first time round, next time the PLP have to show iron discipline and stand aside to properly keep him out.

There doesn’t need to be a coup, just a cause: the rescuing of the Labour Party on behalf of its voters. A candidate – the one who tests best with middle Britain and the courage to make a choice and stick to it. That will be hard, but this has to end.

In the words of Neil Kinnock: "It can be done, it must be done."[8]

McTernan confounded

On 12 July 2016, Labour's National Executive Committee met and decided that Jeremy Corbyn, the incumbent leader, did not need any PLP nominations to stand in the 2016 leadership election. However, on 26 July 2016 Labour donor and former prospective parliamentary candidate Michael Foster brought a legal action challenging the NEC's decision of 12 July 2016 that the incumbent leader is automatically included in the contest. But in a three-page Judgment on 28 July 2016, Mr Justice Foskett concluded that the decision of the NEC was correct and that Corbyn was entitled to be a candidate in the forthcoming election without the need for nominations. Jeremy Corbyn said:

"I welcome the decision by the High Court to respect the democracy of the Labour party. This has been a waste of time and resources when our party should be focused on holding the government to account."


John McTernan told Channel 4 News on 9 August 2016 that, like deputy leader Tom Watson, he believed there is an organised Trotskyist infiltration of the Labour party using a vanguardist approach to grab the leadership and drive it in a particular direction. He said Labour had made a foolish error when it created the category of supporters who could vote in the leadership election but were not subject to its membership rules and thus be expelled from the party. It had taken a long time in the 1980s to get rid of Militant Tendency and Socialist Organiser:

"If Jeremy Corbyn comes back as leader, it can't be as before which allowed John McDonnell to undermine colleagues. Power to choose the Shadow Cabinet must be restored to the PLP."[9]

Vote for oblivion

On 19 August 2016, in another vitriolic piece in the Telegraph newspaper, McTernan concluded:

"There is only one candidate for Labour Leader who can be trusted with the country’s defence. It is increasingly clear that a vote for Corbyn is a vote for oblivion."

The same Telegraph article conducted a poll which revealed that, of 15,406 readers, 57% disagreed with McTernan.[10]

Making peace with the Left

In August 2023, in a YouTube video, Damien Willey said:

"Starmer fan John McTernan issues a plea to Starmer to work with the left on policy, but would the left want to?
Right, so the polls all point to a stonking great General Election win for Team Keith do they? Well three recent by-elections showed those numbers might not be worth the paper they’re written on as Labour only succeeded in winning one out of three.
The notable loss was of course the 2023 Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, which Labour were widely expected to take, it was their most nailed on opportunity and they fell short. Now as much as Starmer and Co have blamed Sadiq Khan and ULEZ for this loss though, a somewhat underreported comment by Labour right winger John McTernan may get to the crux of the real issue in the Labour Party right now.
I’ve spoken about McTernan before, he still regales himself as a political strategist, but his strategicness extends to seeing Labour basically being driven out of Scotland at the 2015 General Election, such was the scale of the loss there and then going to Australia and helping the Australian Labor Party leader Julia Gillard to lose as well. He’s an old school Blairite and his politics is firmly rooted in the belief that con trick can be pulled off again.
This is a guy who said of Starmer’s leadership that the Labour Party is a safe place for Thatcherites to return to. I mean, if anything should put the left right off the party it’s that, put Labour Party members of all colours off the party it is that and functionally it tells you all about the politics of the party today as it was in Blair’s day, we’re back to that kind of failed, waste of time politics once more, but McTernan has all of a sudden stopped the gloating, stopped the goading of the left with idiotic comments such as that and is now striking a more contrite tone, a more placating tone even, but again, we’ve seen this before.
McTernan has written a piece in the pink pages of the Financial Times saying to win Starmer needs to make peace with the left![11]
Now, I know, I laughed too, but calm yourself, pause the vid if needs be, regain your composure and I’ll carry on. McTernan has, it can only be assumed off the back of those by-election results, concluded that the deal has not yet been sealed with voters that Starmer is the one to back. Well I can’t imagine why!
He’s had more policy changes, broken pledges and flip floppery than he’s had hot dinners, why can people not trust him, why do people not know what he stands for, why do people struggle to be convinced by him, I really cannot imagine.
Now to some extent McTernan acknowledges this, the real retail offer as he puts it must be put to the electorate this autumn at the party conference, it is quite conceivably the last party conference there will be before the General Election, not a certainty of course given the weakness and cowardice of Rishi Sunak, but leaving policy to next year would be a gamble and of course would leave very little time to campaign on said policies, so will Starmer finally commit to actual policy and keep it and more to the point, will we care, when it is likely going to be a depressing litany of tory-litism?[12]


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