On Labour Uncut, the Milibands and Diane Abbott

Yes DM may well win. But to say he "has won" may not help him

I have a strict policy of not responding to personalised blog stuff on the web. But given that I am such a fan of Labour Uncut, and given that it is so widely read in serious Labour circles, I have to respond to a passing reference in Dan Hodges's flowery piece today claiming I have argued that "Diane Abbott would prevail" in the Labour leadership contest. As it happens, I have long known that one of the Miliband brothers would be the next Labour leader, and was I think the first journalist to tip Ed Miliband as Gordon Brown's successor back in 2008 when the younger brother was barely on the leadership radar. Conversely, since the idea of Ed Miliband being next leader has become more conventional, I have been more torn about which brother will win, and repeatedly recorded David Miliband's successes in the campaign (incidentally all of this is different from who "should" win).

Now, it is true that I reported relatively early that Abbott looked like she would make the ballot paper, and then wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog reporting a Labour source explaining how she could win like Harriet Harman won the deputy leadership contest from the outside in 2007. Qualifying the blog with the headline "don't laugh", I concluded: "So, will Diane Abbott be the Harriet Harman of 2010? In reality, almost certainly not. But do not underestimate the unpredictability of this contest."

For the record, I do not think and never have thought that Abbott can or will win this contest. But there is -- still -- "unpredictability" over which of the Milibands will win. Which is why it is mildly odd that Hodges's piece, more importantly, is all about how David Miliband has already won. Nor, I suspect, is it particularly helpful to, er, David Miliband.

PS: Talking of LabourUncut, there was another interesting piece on there yesterday, this time by the new Labour MP Michael Dugher about the need for a move away from top-down leadership of the party. In it, Dugher wrote:

[The] new leader will not have the mandate - whoever wins - that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown had. This has been a contest, not a coronation, and the outcome is likely to be very close.

I thought I'd mis-read this and my eyes had invented the "not" in the first bit of the sentence. Dugher is a very smart and rather wise guy, but surely the point about this new leader is that he will have a mandate that Brown -- and to an extent Blair -- lacked, as this is the first real contest since Michael Foot became leader in 1980. If David Miliband wins, he will be all the more powerful for having seen off a ruthless bid by the Ed Miliband team to beat him. If Ed Miliband wins, sources close to him say he will have the "mandate" to implement a leadership to the left of New Labour, contrary to the conventional view that he will bring his party back to the centre.

PPS: Look out for my tips for some unexpected names in the shadow cabinet, and some ones to watch along with a lengthy Harriet Harman interview in this week's magazine.

UPDATE: For the record, when I say that Ed Miliband may not lurch to the right if he wins, I am very much not buying into the "Red Ed" nonsense about him being a mad Trot who could never win an election.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”