Meet the Tories the left should be frightened of

Luckily for Ed Miliband, the Conservative Party is unlikely to listen to the Tories with One Nation vision.

I’ve just woken up after a trip to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. As a Labour councillor, I was something of an intruder. I went a little red at the hotel reception, mumbling apologetically that I wasn’t “actually a Tory” and feeling shell shocked at the huge numbers of powerful looking men in corporate suits. But as it turned out, one group of Conservatives were far frightening than any other. These are the "nice guys", and they pose a serious electoral threat to Labour.

This group is not a formal alliance, but they are all critical of economic liberalism. They are prepared to challenge the market when it isn’t working for people, and they have a genuine concern for the poor. They are socially conservative, and believe in family, community and tradition. They admit that 1979 brought problems as well as benefits. They are sceptical of big business wielding too much power and stick up for strivers, whether they work in the public or private sector. They believe there is such thing as society. They are, in essence, One Nation Tories.

One man I had barely heard of before the conference actually took my breath away. Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Hexham, stood up and made a passionate call for apprenticeships, action on low wages, protection for the poor and local banking. He gave up his summer to walk from Sheffield to Scotland, talking to people about why his party was failing in the north, and his speech was clearly rooted in their concerns.  I thought woah, if that’s where the Tories are heading, Ed Miliband is going to be left without any clothes.

Jesse Norman MP, a gentle giant who is respected from all sides of the party, is better known for this position. I listened to him explain that growth – even if it does return – is not enough if it only benefits the top. He might not sign up to a living wage, but he does want to challenge corporate governance structures to make a difference. Shaun Bailey, former candidate for Hammersmith, agreed with him. In separate sessions MPs Gavin Barwell and Kris Hopkins warned about “kicking public sector workers” and expressed serious concerns that their party was not perceived to be on side with fireman and doctors. Outside parliament, ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie and funder Lord Ashcroft are fighting to build a party that speaks to blue collar workers as well as white collar corporates.

The good news for Labour is that this half of the party isn’t likely to get anywhere any time soon. Economic liberals like George Osborne and John Redwood are detatched from the concerns of the country. They are to the right of the Daily Mail because they still favour the rich guy over the small guy. They believe they will be able to win over working class and inner city areas because they are in line with the polls on welfare, crime and immigration. But they need a positive vision for the country as well as a negative one. They need to speak about what they love as well as hate, what they will give as well as take. When they refuse to challenge the market or use the state, that’s very hard to do. The polling from working class, northern and inner city areas shows that they simply aren’t cutting through. 


“Losing the centre ground is our biggest threat,” says one young Conservative sitting with a group of friends in Carluccio's just outside the conference centre. “The right wingers just think we need to carry on the same way, offer a referendum on Europe and add in some stuff on strugglers and strivers and we’ll be fine.”

“People think we didn’t win (a majority) because we weren’t right wing enough,” his friend chips in, “It’s genuine. Honestly. Do they have no brain?”

If the Tories want to win in 2015, they’ll have to listen to these voices. Returning to growth is not enough if the benefits are only felt by a small number at the top. They will need to steal back the One Nation vision, and that means promoting their nicer half. Such a move would unsettle the left. Luckily for Ed Miliband, that's very unlikely. Economic liberalism still rules the Conservative party, Osborne continues unchallenged, and the centre ground is slowly slipping away.

Balloons featuring images of Chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne hang near the conference centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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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