Mark Serwotka: Why Ed Miliband is right to speak at Durham today

We need a united opposition to coalition policies that are wrecking Britain.

Today I will be speaking at the 128th Durham Miners' Gala, a profound and moving event that continues to attract crowds in the tens of thousands and keeps the spirit of working class solidarity and unity alive.

I will be saying that it has never been more important for the labour movement to be united than in these extraordinary times in which we are living.

Youth unemployment is the highest on record, tens of billions of pounds of public spending is being cut – including massive job cuts, a public sector pay freeze and attacks on pensions – and unemployed and disabled people are receiving unparalleled abuse.

We have to be united to oppose this most vicious attack on everything our movement stands for: protecting the most vulnerable; providing decent jobs for all who can work, and a decent standard of living for those that cannot; providing decent public services that serve the public good, not private profit; and defending working class communities through strong trade unions and community organisations.

That unity is built around opposing this Tory-led government’s attacks on the people we represent.

So when they force people into strike action, we back those brave men and women out on strike – whether over public sector pensions, whether it’s cleaners, Remploy workers or the heroic Spanish miners.

In the 1980s, miners in the north east and elsewhere struggled heroically for jobs and justice. Their opponents were a Tory government and the Murdoch press.

Thanks to the campaigning MP Tom Watson – with whom I will be sharing a platform at Durham – and others, we've taken a chunk out of the Murdoch empire.

Now we need to do the same to this Tory government – a government that last year gave us lower growth and a sharper increase in unemployment than in the Eurozone.

This is no time for prevarication. When they're dismantling the welfare state, we oppose them. When they're forcing families out of their homes through housing benefit cuts, we oppose them. When they freeze pay and try to introduce poverty pay in the regions, we oppose them.

Bob Diamond walked away last week with a £2m pay off – more than 30,000 times what the 2.6m people on the dole will get this week.

The financial crisis which began in the boardrooms and in the stock exchanges is being paid for by those in the care homes and on the dole queues.

Cuts, austerity, call it what you like. It is the wrong solution. Wrong because it isn't working, it is damaging our economy, and wrong because of the misery it is causing in our communities.

The gala shows the labour movement at our best, and I welcome Ed Miliband's decision to speak this year. We have to take the spirit of Durham across the country.

We must be united: in our trade unions, in our communities, in our town halls and in parliament. We must be united and we must fight these cuts every inch of the way.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union

Trade union demonstrators outside parliament on 26 March 2011. Photograph: Getty
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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