Labour should ease up on the Lib Dem baiting

Too many in the party are unable to accept that the age of majoritarian politics may be behind us.

Who do you push off a mountain first, Cameron or Clegg? Cameron, of course, business before pleasure.

A new variant of a very old gag, but one doing the rounds in Manchester at the Labour Party conference yesterday. Dislike for the Liberal Democrats is real in Labour’s ranks, but it shields a wider truth. It isn’t just the Lib Dems that many Labour people from activists to the frontbench despise, it’s the prospect of coalition government per se.

Labour has a mental block in accepting the age of majoritarian politics may be behind us. Rather than a quirk, the 2010 result may be the beginning of a new trend as innate tribalism among voters gives way to an age of electoral mercurialism. If so, the party is in trouble.

In the days that followed our inconclusive general election result in May 2010, it was David Cameron who was able to sweep in with his “big comprehensive offer” in order to get the Lib Dems into government. Labour’s negotiators, messrs Miliband and Balls among them, came up empty-handed. “I don't think the Labour team saw it as a discussion between equals” as Lib Dem negotiator (and now junior minister) Andrew Stunell put it. Rather than see the talks as a defeat, Labour grandees like John Reid and David Blunkett (and many other Labour MPs) opposed the very idea of a Lab-Lib coalition in the first place. Not a lot has changed since. Yesterday on The Staggers, my good friend Simon Danczuk , the Labour MP for Rochdale, described talk of a “progressive alliance” between the parties as a “fanciful notion” which is “completely at odds with the reality of Clegg’s party”.

Of course, Labour has long been its own coalition. The New Labour years were characterised by warring clans of Blairites and Brownites fighting a 13-year turf war at the top of government. But the thought of formal, inter, rather than intra-party coalitions, leaves Labour cold and many within the party refuse to countenance the day when it shares power, locked in a binary assumption: it's either government or opposition.

And yet Ed Miliband used the start of the Labour conference to rattle his sabre at the banks, threatening to split their retail and investment arms – a Vince Cable hardy perennial for the past two years (and evidence of the political cross-dressing that a demob-happy Tony Blair predicted). Yet the Labour leader still accused the Lib Dems yesterday of being “accomplices” the kind of language we can expect a lot more of this week.

As speakers from grassroots delegates, through to trade union leaders and frontbench politicians take to the podium this week there will be an informal competition for the best barbs at the Lib Dems’ expense – and Nick Clegg’s in particular. I will eat my conference pass if a single speaker suggests closer co-operation.

But on the margins of the conference, common sense is stirring. A new grouping, Labour4Democracy, has been launched campaigning for greater pluralism in politics. Led by John Denham and Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield, (one of the most urbane and reflective of Labour’s new intake), the grouping will work to improve relations with the Lib Dems – and others where there is common ground.

It would be silly for Labour to find itself unable to seal the deal with the Lib Dems in 2015 if there is another inconclusive result; especially as the gap between all the parties these days is never as great as it is often portrayed. After all, Labour’s conference slogan shows the way. "Rebuilding Britain" was the theme of the government’s Queen’s Speech too.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Ed Miliband referred to the Lib Dems as Tory "accomplices" yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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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