Without Simeon Andrews, I doubt I’d be doing what I do now. The same goes for Andrew Fisher, Labour’s director of policy and the author of the party’s historic 2017 manifesto; and Mary Partington, who now works in the Shadow Chancellor’s office. There are others, too, who were brought into the ranks of the Labour left in its dog days, when it all seemed hopeless, doomed, defeated, who owe so much to him.
Simeon was, for a long time, John McDonnell’s closest associate. A former actor — he’d even had small parts in the likes of Corrie — he was a pillar of the Labour left back then.
It’s difficult to understate just how important his work was, particularly in the days of New Labour triumphalism and the left’s eclipse. He ran a series of parliamentary trade union groups, particularly representing the left of the labour movement in the noughties: the Fire Brigades Union, the Rail Maritime and Transport workers union, the ASLEF train drivers’ union, the PCS civil servants’ union and so on. These groups organised parliamentary questions, interventions, debates, put down ‘Early Day Motions’ (a kind of parliamentary petition which brings attention to an issue), arranged meetings with ministers, that kind of thing. In doing so, his operation helped to give the more radical wing of the trade union movement a political voice.
He did other very important things, too, which I’ll come on to. When I graduated in 2005, and was working in a Manchester gay bar for a few months, I sent my CV in to every single Labour MP who rebelled against the Iraq war. I got blanket rejections — except for a handwritten note from John McDonnell, saying asking me to travel to London to meet his associate, Simeon. I remember being so nervous that I didn’t sleep at all the night before the interview.
Simeon wasn’t anything like I expected: maybe I thought all Westminster politicos would be rather dour, overly serious, grey. Here was a rosy-faced, grinning middle-aged man, dressed in a vibrantly colourful shirt, sporting a silver cross hanging from his right ear: Simeon, it would turn out, was an avid death metal fan. And I remember, even then, at that first meeting, him talking excitedly about a strategy to win Labour for the left, about encouraging socialist candidates to stand, about reviving trade unionism. And that was the first and last job interview I left feeling inspired, which, let’s face it, is a pretty unique experience for a job interview.
I began working there in November 2005: I remember it well, being picked up by my new colleague Andrew Fisher from Parliament’s Derby Gate entrance. That week, the fag-end of Tony Blair’s government was trying to introduce 90 days detention. Simeon got us to ring round plausibly rebellious MPs to make the case for voting against the Whip (using briefing material from Shami Chakrabarti’s Liberty, for example). Simeon was running a shadow left-wing Whipping operation to challenge New Labour’s excesses: from Blairite policies of privatisation to attacks on civil liberties, he would kick into gear the operation to lobby, debate, even plead with Labour MPs. And that first week, New Labour suffered its first ever legislative defeat over 90 days.
He was always passionately committed to what then seemed like the hopeless mission of a left-led Labour Party. He helped set up the Labour Representation Committee in 2004: a coalition of unions, left-wing MPs and activists which attempted to co-ordinate a coherent Labour left. Him and John McDonnell were a bit of an ‘odd couple’ for a long time: two profoundly committed socialists who saw their work as a part of an absolutely critical long-term political project. Simeon was always keen for John to stand as the left’s leadership candidate — which he did in 2006–7, getting both me and Andrew to set up campaign events, research policy, set up blogs and even run a primitive social media campaign. John’s campaign was crushed by the Brownite machine, but in many ways his attempt foreshadowed Corbyn’s later successful run.
Simeon once even threw his own hat in the political ring: he put himself forward as Streatham’s Labour candidate in 2008, standing against the then-‘soft left’ Chuka Umunna and the Blairite Steve Reed (later to become Croydon North’s MP). He didn’t make it, but he’d have been a brilliant MP.
One of the things Simeon was really keen on a belief the left could be driven by idealism and a sincere desire to radically transform society, but be professionalised, well-managed, and well-presented, too. That was something that stuck with everyone who worked for him including (I’m sure he’ll forgive the complement) the supremely well-organised and professional Andrew Fisher.
Tony Benn once said he’d like to remembered for encouraging others: Simeon was certainly someone who encouraged me. He supported me when I organised my first protest against the Saudi state visit in 2007; when I first started experimenting with political writing; and with political organising, when I helped to set up the LRC’s youth wing, for example. When I later wrote my books and articles, I always saw them, in some way, as a political project to help advance the cause of the left, and that was partly inspired by what Simeon had encouraged me (and others) to do in those years that I worked for him.
On a personal level, Simeon was a consummate professional, but also very witty with a sometimes cutting, sardonic sense of humour. He had a paternal streak, always supporting those who worked for him. And he was profoundly committed to the cause of the labour movement and socialism, and lived to see the Labour left he fought for so passionately — even when it was utterly marginalised — finally triumph.
Socialists understand political and social change as a collective struggle and endeavour. But the contributions of individuals can be, and Simeon was one of them. He was a brilliant comrade, a fighter for the left, and somebody who was incredibly supportive to me, Andrew, Mary, and so many others, and was critical in how our lives panned out. His loss has rightly been mourned by figures across the labour movement. His legacy continues, and there is no better way of honouring it than to complete the struggle he fought for over so many decades —to win the cause of socialism in Britain and beyond.