Unions: “Stop David, not Get Ed”

Despite gleeful howls from the right-wing press, it seems that the unions were more interested in st

The debate about the extent to which Ed Miliband owes his election victory to the unions is going to rumble on and on. Already, it's the most prominent detail of his election: for instance, the Telegraph's front-page story today ("New Labour is dead") features the phrase "Mr Miliband insisted he was his 'own man' and not in thrall to the unions, whose support gave him victory."

This morning, Alistair Darling was on the Today programme to talk about Labour's future economic policy, but instead found himself tackled by Sarah Montague on Ed Miliband's likely economic direction, given the manner of his election. Even Patrick Wintour's detailed and excellent analysis of the voting breakdown in today's Guardian concedes in its headline that "the unions had the last word".

The right-wing press is clearly going to enjoy attempting to undermine Ed Miliband as he attempts to take the Labour Party forward with references to his "thrall" to union barons and his lack of a democratic mandate. There can be no doubt that the numbers appear to stack up behind this argument: Ed received first preferences from just 72 of the 635 constituency parties, but dominated union members, with 47,439 first preferences compared to his brother's 21,778. Union turnout overall was low -- just 9 per cent of those eligible voted -- but it seems that those who did turn out did so overwhelmingly for the younger Miliband.

The relationship between Labour and the unions must and should be subject to close scrutiny. But, before anyone writes Ed off as a union stooge, Kevin Maguire, in his Mirror column today, teases out a vital point: the unions didn't so much elect Ed Miliband as not elect David Miliband. Or, as Maguire put it, they "whirred into action to Stop David not Get Ed".

Nigel Morris in today's Independent makes a similar point, even quoting a union official saying: "We stopped David -- that's the main thing." According to another of Morris's union sources, they viewed their tactics as "levelling the playing field" for the other candidates in the face of David's superior resources.

And here we run up against yet another ramification of the Miliband brothers' family relationship -- in another contest, perhaps the way for Ed Miliband to distance himself from his apparent popularity with the unions would have been to emphasise that he had merely benefited from his rival's inability to appear "in touch" with the working class as represented by union members.

But although Ed has shown himself to be ruthless, he has also proved himself the kind of politician who will not kick a fellow candidate when he's down. That the candidate in question happens to be his elder brother would thus seem to rule this course of action out for him.

The problem now facing Ed Miliband is clear: if he takes union funding to replenish his party's empty coffers, making various concessions on his approach to cutting the deficit in return, the party will be financially ready to campaign much sooner. But, as the reactions from the right-wing press have already demonstrated, the taint of union involvement, especially when it comes to economic policy, hands crucial ammunition to the Conservatives at a time when Labour desperately needs to be on the offensive.

As delighted as Ed will be to have woken up leader of the Labour Party this morning, I can't help but think he will already be regretting, in private, how he got there.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser