It's not about Englishness, it's about the meaning of Ed

The Labour leader wants to challenge preconceptions about what a Prime Minister is supposed to look and sound like.

Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday on English identity and the Union attracted a good deal of attention and commentary. (Some of it is reworked in an op-ed for today’s Telegraph.) Inevitably, it has divided opinion – the spectrum ranges from those who think it was a superficial intervention on an important subject to those who think it was an important intervention on a superficial subject. In the middle will be quite a few who are cautiously intrigued and made curious to hear more, which is enough of a win for Miliband. No-one is going to agree on the precise meaning of Englishness and how it interacts with Britishness and no politician is going to satisfactorily resolve the issues in one speech.

The theme is to be developed over the coming weeks and months and woven into a discussion of wider and more pertinent policy themes. A big speech on immigration – an obvious question raised by the discussion of national identity and tricky terrain for Labour – is, I learn, coming up soon. The intention is to engage with public anxiety on the subject, building on some of the points in the Englishness/Britishness debate, but without reaching for the obvious bemoaning of un-policed borders coupled with blood-curdling pledges to crack down that have become the political default setting whenever the topic is broached.

Meanwhile, I suspect Team Ed will just be glad that so many people are chattering about a topic their man placed on the agenda. Starting the conversation instead of reacting to events is one of the trickier aspects of opposition. One passage of the speech that leapt out at me, however, was not his discussion of what it means to be English or what it means to be part of the United Kingdom, but what it means to be Ed Miliband:

This is who I am. The son of a Jewish refugee and Marxist academic. A Leeds supporter, from North London. A baseball fan. Somebody who looks a bit like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. If spin doctors could design a politician, I suspect he wouldn’t look like me.

This is not just a casual joke to warm up the audience. The self-deprecation comes naturally to Miliband but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also very carefully considered. Miliband’s strategists long ago came to the conclusion that he will struggle to compete with David Cameron in a Presidential-style beauty contest election. Focus groups of voters have reported difficulty seeing in the Labour leader the kind of qualities that, according to conventional wisdom, are exuded by a man striding purposefully towards Downing Street. Miliband does not, so the thinking goes, resemble the Prime Minister from central casting and attempts to make him act, sound and perform like one fall flat. “He is at his worst when trying to do a Blair or a Cameron,” concedes one aide.

So the plan is to challenge perceptions of what constitutes the obvious image of a Prime Minister – to own and subvert the jibe that Miliband looks a bit like Wallace until it becomes a kind of advantage. The thought the Labour leader’s team want to trigger in voters’ minds is something along the lines of: “Yes, he doesn’t necessary conform to conventional expectations of a PM, but these are unconventional times and, besides, we have a smooth performer in Cameron - slick, confident, classic leadership material according to the rule book - and he tuned out to have no substance, out of touch ..” etc. (Team Ed are very keen on projecting the idea of “ripping up the rules” of conventional politics.)

The strategy is not without risk. Embracing the idea that the Labour leader is a bit of a geek might not do him any favours. The message, as one friend of Miliband jokes affectionately, has to be more dynamic than “Ed: the guy who will help Britain with its homework.”

But the current thinking around the leader is that he might as well promote what he is instead of trying to be something he isn’t. In an age of ferocious cynicism about politics, authenticity is the most precious commodity a candidate can have. There is, of course, a tricky contradiction involved in the whole business of spinning authenticity – a paradox in itself. There are painful memories in the Labour camp of trying something similar with Gordon Brown. “Not Flash, Just Gordon” – was the slogan for a while. It worked, up to a point. The comparison is flimsy, though. The two men have vastly different personalities and campaign in vastly different circumstances. Brown was a deeply unpopular incumbent; Miliband a largely unknown challenger.

Expect more of those self-deprecating little jokes, asides and riffs about the cliches of conventional politics and what a PM is supposed to look and sound like. They are part of a very deliberate strategy to persuade people a PM can actually look and sound like Edward Miliband.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political 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