Brown's comeback

In all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists

Gordon Brown's Labour Conference speech was never going to be the 'make-or-break' point which many commentators were trying to engineer, but he certainly used the opportunity to take on his critics and win back the public. 

Progress's editorial (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=3379) in its conference edition of the magazine argued that the crucial thing the Prime Minister should do in his speech was to take responsibility for the government's mistakes in the last year, and the 10p tax debacle in particular. So it was good to see that he admitted early on in the speech that it was indeed a mistake and that taking the side of hard-working families will be a priority henceforth. It wasn't as explicit an apology as Tony Blair made over the 75p pension rise in 2000, but it was welcome nevertheless.

We also suggested that the PM should use his speech to argue that the government can no longer make the changes to Britain it seeks by governing by central dictat and that there needed to be a new contract between citizen and state. There was a reference to the changing role of the state when Gordon said: "Let us be clear the modern role of government is not to provide everything, but it must be to enable everyone." It was a shame, however that he didn't go much further than that.

There were other elements which suggested he'd listened to people's concerns. For instance it was a good move to pledge that as families have to "make economies to make ends meet" so the government too "will ensure that we get value for money out of every single pound" of taxpayers' money. Though he didn't go as far as we did and suggest that the size of Whitehall should be cut by a quarter or that the number of government ministers should be whittled down, but I guess he needs as many members of the PLP on the payroll as possible at the moment...

Progress has long campaigned for greater UK commitment to expose and act on the human rights abuses in Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur, so Gordon's reiterated plea from last year's conference speech that the words 'never again' should not become "just a slogan" and should be instead "the crucible in which our values are tested" was welcome. But as in so many areas of government, the fine words of a speech are barely translated into practice when the stage set is dismantled. Let's hope that this year sees more action from our government in putting pressure on those regimes which think they can transgress international law without fear of retaliation.

I wasn't so sure whether the more populist measures in the speech might be storing up problems for the future. For example, while I can see why those suffering from cancer will see real benefit from the pledge to not charge for their prescriptions, won't this simply create even more inconsistency in an already byzantine system of charges and how do we respond to patients with other potentially life-threatening illnesses? More popular on the doorstep by far would have been to agree to abolish hospital car parking charges and telephone charges.

I also wasn't convinced that the move to charge migrants for use of public services will work in practice and doesn't it send the wrong signal at a time when our economy will increasingly rely on migrant labour? Are we ready to charge them for the use of schools and surely not for emergency health care?

But in all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists pore over the detail in the weeks to come, it may well provide the starting point for a wider debate about the direction of the government and party.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
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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