After Gordon

There are even those who relish the idea of leaving Cameron in charge of the worsening economic situ

The post-Gordon era is upon us. Some within the Labour Party talk about the Prime Minister as if he were gone already. Ministers avoid the subject where they can, and his old enemies are openly hostile. Tortured discussions among backbenchers twist around turning points and tipping points. Was it George Osborne's inheritance tax speech, the election that never was, or the 10p tax rate that really did for him? Will it be the Glasgow East by-election, Labour's policy forum later this month, or the autumn party conference season that will definitively mark the end of the Brown era?

The talk in Westminster is no longer about whether a period in opposition would be useful, but whether enough genuine talent would survive a landslide Tory victory to form a shadow cabinet. The question is not whether the Labour Party can renew itself in power, but whether it will survive the humiliation of defeat. There is the whiff of revolutionary defeatism in the air, and the distinct belief in some quarters that the party's interests would be best served by losing power. There are even those who somewhat relish the idea of leaving David Cameron in charge of the worsening economic situation.

Act of war

In this atmosphere, almost anything Charles Clarke does is liable to be interpreted as a bid for the leadership, or a move to undermine Gordon Brown. The former home secretary is viewed in Brownite circles as something not far short of Satan (otherwise known as Alan Milburn). So his new paper on the future of public services, published as the New Statesman goes to press by the accounting firm KPMG, will undoubtedly be seen as an act of war.

In reality, Achieving the Potential is a rather modest document, which discusses whether there is an argument for an extension in "user charging" to top up tax revenues for transport, housing, education and health and social care. Although to some ears this may sound suspiciously like another argument for further privatisation, such public sector charging for services already exists: for driving in to central London, prescriptions and school meals, for example.

Clarke suggests that an extension of charging might provide a pragmatic solution to a fundamental conundrum: in an age when expectations of public services are rising, but people are not prepared to pay more taxes, how will the government fund the improvements? He argues for an increase in road charging, coupled with a "hypothecation" of the revenue into environmental improvements. He also believes the building of new infrastructure projects, such as bridges and tunnels, would be accelerated by the systematic ability to charge tolls, on the model of the M6 bypass or the Dartford River Crossing. In social housing, tenants could be given a "menu" of choices, such as the option of a concierge in a block of flats or environmental improvements, which they would pay for on top of their rent.

In more controversial areas, such as education and health, Clarke is more cautious. He does not advocate, for instance, charging for GPs, as happens in some countries, or the introduction of fees in education beyond payments for extended services, such as after-school clubs.

At the same time, he recognises potential issues of equity that inevitably arise when some people are better able to pay the charges than others. To address this, he suggests a range of solutions - including means-testing, graduated charges and repayment - such as already exist for student loans.

Avoiding controversy

Clarke is at pains to emphasise that his work on user charging was not intended as an ideological statement or a political intervention. In some circles, however, it will inevitably be seen as entirely consistent with the Blairite love-in with business, given that some of the services would almost certainly be provided by the private sector. But I believe Clarke when he says this is a genuine attempt to address a potential funding gap between consumer demand and willingness to pay taxes.

Nonetheless, this is undoubtedly a "beyond Gordon" document. At a breakfast to launch it, the Prime Minister's name was not mentioned once. It is telling that such proposals for public sector reform are not being discussed around the cabinet table.

There are good reasons for this. Clarke writes in his introduction: "Any attempt to change the existing system has the potential to be extremely controversial. There may well be substantial numbers of losers, as well as winners, and the reform is likely to raise sharp ideological and political questions." As the education secretary who pushed through the 2003 legislation to set up a system of variable tuition fees for universities, Clarke knows just how controversial "user charging" can be.

Perhaps that is the point. It may not be possible for Labour politicians to think adventurous thoughts from within government because the political stakes are now too high. Personally, I have grave doubts about some of Charles Clarke's proposals, largely because I believe charges act as a disincentive to the poorest in society. But the "sharp ideological and political questions" he talks about are precisely those that need to be addressed if the post-Gordon era is not to become the post-Labour era.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism

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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