How Blue Labour shaped Miliband's speech

The three reasons why Miliband's speech could have been considered "Blue Labour".

There are three reasons why Ed Miliband's speech could have been considered "Blue Labour", leaving aside the little noticed silver blue rose that dominated the backdrop of the conference hall.

The first was a readiness to embrace conflict. New Labour presented a harmonious view of Britain; embracing the market would bring benefits for everyone. Now Ed Milband is acknowledging conflicts of interest and wants to position himself as someone who can take them on. This is most obvious when it comes to talking about "predators" in the corporate sector. But this is part of a wider narrative that speaks out against dominant interests, be they large financial giants, energy companies, state bureaucracies or the media industry and Rupert Murdoch. The frame is the small interest of the ordinary person verses the large "vested interests" that shut them out. Whether Ed Miliband can speak with credibility on these issues when he is often seen as an "insider" remains to be seen.

The second influence is a newly emerging moral tone. Ed Miliband wants to talk about morality when he allocates housing in a world of scarce resources. He wants to talk about responsibility. Controversially, he also wants to talk about benefit cheats, which make up a tiny proportion of the country's fraud, but agitate people's sense of fairness. Although some of the leader's policies were explicitly Blue Labour - state contracts going to firms that give apprenticeships, workers representation on remuneration boards - its influence was more cultural. Ed Miliband has said that he thinks New Labour focused too much on the "fabric" of society but not enough on the "ethic". As he acknowledged when I interviewed him for my book over the summer:

I think that actually (it's) ahead of its time in a way Blue Labour was saying to us look you have to think about the values that your society operates under, it's not just always about you know how can you get a bit more money for the health service, or getting more money into education, it's also about something bigger and because it's harder to define, I think it really matters, and this important point which... that the institutions we have and the way they are run speak to a set of values.

The third influence is on Ed Miliband's personal presentation. There is a desire to tell his story, and to put some emotion in to it. He explicitly referenced the important influence of the holocaust in his upbringing. He continues to make self-deprecating jokes, even if they make us feel a little uncomfortable. Blue Labour proponent Maurice Glasman said recently Ed Miliband had an "angry, insurgent side to him". If that didn't shine through in his speech, it came through more strongly in his interview for Radio 4 the day after. He will never be John Prescott, but he's consciously moving in that direction, and trying to find strength in his personal, distinct leadership. "I am my own man" as he told the conference hall.

It would be wrong to over simplify or exaggerate the importance of Blue Labour. There are many other influences at play, and some really big chunks of Blue Labour were missing from the leader's speech. The tone felt too optimistic to be truly blue, which delivers a strong critique of the concept of progress and the jargon of "going forward". The speech also had relatively little to say about family, friendships and neighbourhoods - a Blue Labour speech would have strengthened the rhetoric around co-operatives and mutuals and sounded - perhaps controversially - a little more Big Society. But a consistent narrative is emerging now and it's an interesting one. The speech was criticised for being confused, but there are strong themes there. Next time Ed Miliband just needs to cut the length by a third, and spell them out.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, to be published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99 on 13 October. Advance signed copies available now exclusively at www.tangledupinblue.co.uk

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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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