The Lib Dems need to decide what they really stand for

After Cable's intervention, the party needs to resolve its policy differences.

Oh dear, there’s a bit of a barney going on over here in the Lib Dems. Over the weekend, Vince Cable made some mildly ambitious comments alluding to the fact that should a vacancy ever arise (and should he be given the opportunity), he probably could make a half decent fist of running the Lib Dems. He’s probably right, too.

Now I think Vince is at that stage of his career when he more often than not takes the view, "stuff it, I’ll say what I think", which is a pleasant change from the norm. I seem to remember Ken Clarke making similar noises a few years back, pointing out the lunacy of trying to pretend you had no ambitions to lead your party. But predictably, many in the media  - and the Conservative Party - have jumped on this as the start of a Lib Dem civil war as Vince mounts an "attack" on Nick. "Of course he knew what he was doing", goes the cry, "he’s an experienced politician and he understands ‘the code".

This has the potential to be especially problematic for the Lib Dems, as the party wrestles to find its soul. This is often poorly defined as left vs. right, social liberals vs. Orange Bookers (Vince is usually placed in the former camp, with folk conveniently forgetting he contributed a chapter to The Orange Book), or even grassroots vs. parliamentary party. Of course, none of these descriptions truly fit.

But it does expose the need in the party to start resolving some of its positions, defining firm policy, and preparing for 2015. The differentiation strategy may have kicked off in June 2011, but I’m not convinced many people have noticed. Without this, the party will lack direction, and the discontent will manifest itself in questions over the leadership. The party is undoubtedly split over this. A poll on my own blog had a tiny majority for a change in leader before 2015, a larger Lib Dem Voice poll went the other way (no doubt aided by the question essentially being framed as, "do you agree with Lembit that we need a new leader?") And as things stand, whenever this issue comes up and someone expresses any ambition in the future, vitriol will be poured on their head from a large, internally held, bucket.

So starting with the party conference in September, we must formulate and agree some firm policy agendas. This, more than anything else, will tell us who we think the right person to present those policies to the electorate is – Nick or someone else. An open debate about the policies and philosophy we wish to present to the world is the first step down that road. And then we can concentrate on doing the important stuff. Arguing over whether our senior politicians have the right express ambition or not seems like a bit of a side issue. However much fun it may be ...

Nick Clegg's leadership is under growing criticism from Liberal Democrat members. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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