David Miliband is having a strong anti-Tory campaign

Join the dots, and a distinct, coherent attack emerges from the Foreign Secretary.

David Miliband, who has his own campaign blog, which I referred to last week, had an eye-catching line in his speech at Labour HQ dismantling the Tories' "big society" rhetoric yesterday, when he said:

The words may be John F Kennedy but the policies are pure George W Bush.

Yet Miliband is about much more than one-liners. In fact, if you join the dots, his latest speech was part of a series of powerful attacks on the Tory party that show the Foreign Secretary has been paying close attention to his Conservative opponents over recent months.

The New Labour moderniser has apparently come firmly to the view that the Conservatives have not, in fact, put in changes equivalent to the ones that began in his own party with Neil Kinnock's 1985 expulsion of Militant and continued under Tony Blair, who symbolically abolished Clause Four.

Yesterday, Miliband rallied the Labour faithful, saying:

The Tory head and the Tory heart are at odds. The head tells them that the world has changed, that they have been rejected at three elections because they were seen as the Nasty Party. The heart tells them something different: that government is always the problem not the solution, that Europe is a threat not an opportunity, that the environment is an add-on at best and a distraction at worst.

When you peel away the rhetoric of the Big Society, what do you find? The message is about self-service, not government at your service; on your bike, not by your side. They say they're empowering you. The truth is they are abandoning you. Why else would they block commitments to 1:1 tuition in schools, offer gambles not guarantees for those needing cancer treatment, retrenchment not reform when it comes to public services?

Their manifesto says they oppose big government but that they support the NHS, the biggest employer in the world; they can believe either but not both.

It's not the Big Society but the Big Gamble.

The major Tory attacks from Miliband began at last year's party conference, when he delighted activists by saying, among other things, that the party's positioning in Europe made him "sick".

And in February he gave a speech to the think tank Demos, about which I blogged at the time here and which you can read in full here, in which he said:

New Labour said the values never change but that the means need to be updated. The Tories want it the other way around. They say the values have changed, but, miraculously, the policies should stay the same

I recognise the Tory difficulty. We faced it after 1994. You need to reassure people you are not a risk; and you need to offer change. But while we promised evolution not revolution in the short term, like sticking to Tory spending limits, we offered a platform for radical change in the medium to long term, from the minimum wage to school investment.

Cameron's got himself facing the other way round. The heart insisted on radical change in the short term -- cuts in inheritance tax for the richest states, a marriage tax allowance, immediate cuts in public spending, bring back fox-hunting. But after that, the head gives the impression that it really doesn't know what to do, other than press pause on reform, offer a £1m internet prize for the best policy ideas, and then go off and play with the Wii.

They have managed the unique feat of being so determined to advertise pragmatism that they have completely obliterated any medium-term vision to their politics, while cleaving to short-term commitments that leave the impression they are ideological zealots. It's the precise opposite of the New Labour approach in the 1990s.

The result is that today's Conservatism looks more and more like a toxic cocktail of Tory traditions. The government on offer from David Cameron would be as meritocratic as Macmillan, as compassionate as Thatcher, and as decisive as Major.

There is a distinct theme here. The Foreign Secretary, who described Cameron's "camera on, camera off" approach to politics in front of millions on BBC1's Question Time last week, is emerging as a considerable force against a Conservative Party he well understands.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for 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