Labour can't build "one nation" on its own

Miliband needs an alliance for change - Greens, social liberals and trade unions.

Your intrepid reporter has been clocking up the miles, dear reader. First in Bristol for the Greens, then Brighton for the Liberal Democrats and now just back from Manchester for Labour. I’m not going to Birmingham for the Tories, I may be a soft-left pluralist, but I’m not that soft and I’m too dizzy with fringes, receptions and okay, I admit it, drink.  

So what should we make of the progressive political scene after its conference season?  I came out pretty much as I went in, and as Gramsci told me I should always be, “living without illusions without being disillusioned”. The conferences reflect the party system – they are all in long term secular decline. Physically and emotionally they shrink, fewer people with fewer reasons to be there.  Let's take them in chronological order. 

The Greens are a sunny delight.  Brimming with hope, ideas and democracy (their members vote on everything, all the time), they have answers to the problems of the poor getting poorer and the planet burning – but they have absolutely no strategy for doing anything about it. They have won in one place - Brighton – the only four-way marginal on the planet they love so much.  But the planet's temperature is rising faster than Green Party representation in the political system. I know it’s the voting system. But please, my Green friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not idiots after all.

And the Liberal Democrats? Speaking at three fringe meetings, I witnessed a party whose heart beats to the centre-left but which, up until now, has had little intention of doing anything about it. Of course they have the tough job of sorting out the mess when the public vote for a hung parliament, but they seem incapable of nudging that outcome to be a centre-left coalition, not a centre-right one, next time. They are just sitting tight and hoping, rather than acting.  If social democracy is organised liberalism then they need to get a lot more organised. So, my social liberal friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. You’re not idiots after all.

And finally to Labour. Look, Ed's delivery was amazing and authentic.  What we got was him. The land-grab on "one-nation" Tory territory was sensible electoral politics. He has now got to base camp. He no longer has to survive the day. He is at last the leader of the Labour Party.  Now he has to climb the mountain to get to the summit of power and not just be in office.  But he can’t do it alone.  The climb is too long and too tough.  It has three parts. First, he has to start taking the environment seriously after failing to mention it at all.  The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green. So it's not just one-nation but one-planet. Second, the big problem facing the left is the separation of power and politics as capitalism went global and politics stayed local. To win back control, we need one-Europe. Again, there was no mention.

Finally, Ed said on Tuesday that he will prove to a sceptical electorate that politics works.  Like Gordon before him, that is a Herculean task that no one person can realistically take on. Gordon got up earlier and earlier to take on the job and consequently achieved less and less.  Too many in Labour still think that the party and the party alone, can usher in socialism from above.

In the week of the death of Eric Hobsbawm, it really is worth remembering that Labour’s forward march was halted 30 years ago. It can’t be re-booted by one person based on the same broken model.  The class forces, the mode of production and not even the threat of the Soviet Union now exist to give Labour the power it once had. We are one-nation made up of people with differing views and a consensus will have to be negotiated, rather than inmposed. So, my Labour comrades, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not, after all, idiots.

A one-nation politics will require an alliance for change. Ed will need Greens and social liberals, he will need stronger unions to predistribute, he will need civil society to battle for communities and equality and he will need networks across Europe to tackle the tax havens and the corporate blackmail of the race to the bottom. To create one-nation is a job far beyond Labour’s shrunken capabilities – though it can and must lead.

And one final thought, before we put the progressive conference season to bed. Labour has been polling anywhere between three to 14 per cent ahead of the Tories in the last few days. We will have a better idea of the lie of the land after next week's Conservative conference. But any sense that the economy is recovering in the run-up to 2015 could, as in 1983 and 1992, see big Labour leads melt away. The Tories will say “look, it took longer and was harder than we thought – because of the scale of the mess Labour left – so don’t let the wreckers back in and instead give us the a mandate to see the job through”.  The centre-left has to start producing an alterative story about the good life and the good society – and above all about a sustainable planet - so that no one wants to turn back to a temporary boom built on a continuing social recession. We need a different vision of what it means to live in the 21st century.

There is much to do and little time, but there is an emerging framework - the game is on.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

"The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green." Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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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