Miliband at his best and at his boldest

The Labour leader delivered his most confident and effective speech to date.

"Ed speaks human", his supporters used to say, and today Ed Milband proved that he can. Speaking without notes for more than an hour, this was the best and most relaxed speech he has delivered since becoming Labour leader. The jokes were funny, the message was hopeful, and the attack lines were lethal. Returning repeatedly to the theme of "one nation", he suggested that while David Cameron had failed to live up to this tradition, he could. His "faith" (the other leitmotif) was, he said, not a religious one, but one that the religious would recognise all the same. It was defined by the belief that "we have a duty to leave the world a better place".

From there, he argued that the Tories, both heartless and hopeless, were set to leave Britain a worse place. The government's biggest mistakes - the NHS reorganisation ("you can't trust the Tories with the NHS"), the abolition of the 50p tax rate, the devotion to austerity - were all ruthlessly recalled. As, inevitably, was Andrew Mitchell's run-in with the police. But while the Lib Dems sought to make light of the incident ("my fellow plebs," Danny Alexander quipped), Miliband angrily brandished it as evidence of why the Tories could never be a "one nation" government.

Fears that the speech would be jargonistic and wonkish were dispatched ("predistribution" was nowhere to be found) as the Labour leader expressed himself in clear, accessible terms. "If the medicine's not working," he said of the economy, "you need to change the medicine. And you need to change the doctor too." And he vowed that while Labour would be forced to take tough decisions in office, he would never cut taxes for the richest, while raising them for the poorest - "those with the broadest shoulders will always bear the greatest burden." He could not wish for a more potent dividing line with Cameron's party.

But while Miliband was clearer than ever about his differences with the Tories, he also extended an olive branch to their supporters. In one of the most effective passages, he declared that he understood why they voted Conservative and why they "turned away from the last Labour government". But now that the country was back in recession and borrowing more than last year, Cameron no longer deserved the benefit of the doubt. With an eye to the right, Miliband also acknowledged that a Labour government would have to cut spending - "we've got to live within our means" - and declared that, while he would do everything possible to help the unemployed, those who could work had a "responsibility" to do so. As for the Lib Dems, Miliband, more in sorrow than in anger, lamented that the party behind the 1909 People's Budget had supported the "millionaire's budget" of 2012.

While light on policy, the speech successfully outlined a vision of a fairer, more generous society. The banks would "serve the country", rather than the country serving the banks, the "free market" in the NHS would end, and the "two nations" - the rich and the rest - would be brought together. Displaying his new-found confidence, Miliband recalled his "predators and producers" refrain, adding that "one year on, people know what I was talking about".

After this speech, the Tories will no longer be able to console themselves with the thought that while Labour rides high, Miliband is unelectable. Once seen as a drag on his party, the Labour leader will now be recognised as an asset.

Labour leader Ed Miliband acknowledges the applause as he delivers his speech to delegates at the Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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