Ed's hit himself with a hammer. Why is he surprised it hurts?

Miliband is fundamentally wrong in his perception of where the centre ground is.

Ed Miliband said before he arrived in Liverpool he wanted to re-write the political rulebook. Yesterday, he succeeded.

The rules for party conference speeches go something like this. The leader arrives. It is billed either as "make or break" if they are under pressure, or "the most important speech of their life" if they are on the verge of political breakthrough. In Ed's case I think we can safely put that breakthrough stuff aside for a moment.

Prior to the great address there are mutterings of discontent. Noises off that hint at dark deeds if the becalmed or embattled leader does not deliver. Then he rises. A self deprecating joke. Thanks to the spouse. A plea to "get to work" or "down to business".

Forty minutes later the world has turned. Conference is on it's feet, the critics silenced. For one brief moment the mists clear and our troubled politician again catches a glimpse of the sunlit uplands.

If only. There are no sunny uplands on Ed Miliband's horizon today. "It was obvious he was attempting to move his party away from the territory on which Tony Blair fought elections", said the Times, "It was also the territory on which Mr Blair won elections. And Mr Miliband may have moved just a little farther from that too". "Ed Miliband's shift to the left is a gift for the Tories", said Ben Brogan in the Telegraph.

This morning Labour's leader should have been basking in the plaudits. Instead he was roaming the TV and radio studios in a desperate attempt at damage limitation. "I'm not anti-business" he said over and over. His party wasn't lurching to the left but "firmly in the middle ground of politics".

Fine. But what exactly did Ed Miliband expect? What reaction was he looking for to a speech from a Labour leader that divided the nation into "producers" and "predators", attacked '"bad" businesses and "consensus" politics, declared war on "vested interests", and announced to loud cheers he was nothing like a man who had secured three successive electoral mandates from the British people.

"I genuinely don't understand", said one shadow cabinet source this morning, "why give a speech like that and then get cross when it gets written up that way". Quite. Watching Ed Miliband today has been like watching someone pick up a hammer, hit themselves in the head and then cry out in surprise, "Oh my god, that hurt me!".

To be fair, some of Ed Miliband's supporters are realistic about the implications of the strategy they're adopting. "If you want to win an election in one term you have to take risks", one insider said yesterday, "a safety first approach just won't cut it". There is also some relief amongst his team that the 'no definition, no strategy' monkey he's been carrying around for the past year has finally been prised from his back, "I don't think Ed will be too unhappy if the interpretation is he's found direction, even if there's some criticism of what that direction is", said one source.

But there's removing a monkey from your back, and there's burning it off with a flamethrower. Yesterday Ed Miliband chose to do the latter, and the general impression of a man who has decided to march his party off to the left is toxic.

It also underlines one of the central problems of his leadership. That is that whilst Ed Miliband understands the need to occupy the middle ground of politics, he is fundamentally wrong in his perception of where it is.

If he took the time to skim through that political rulebook he is so intent on shredding he would find on page one, paragraph one the following; "During times of recession and economic hardship the electorate becomes more conservative".

When Ed Miliband says that since the glory years of New Labour the centre of gravity of British politics has shifted, he's right. But it hasn't moved towards the Labour party, but away from it.

Yes people dislike the bankers. But what they dislike was their profligacy, and their reaction is a demand for greater fiscal responsibility and prudence. People are struggling financially. Which means they have even less time for their fellow citizens who try to milk the benefits system or do their shopping through a smashed store-front window.

At times yesterday Ed Miliband tried to acknowledge that. But those nods and winks were lost within his overall narrative. People yearning for stability will not embrace a leader who tells them his leadership will involve, "taking risks". People with a longing for security will not readily turn towards someone who believes "nobody ever changed things on the basis of consensus".

Ed Miliband has decided to do things his own way; be his own man. There is, he said, nothing to be gained from, "wanting to be liked". Judging by the reaction to his speech, perhaps that's just as well.

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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