Miliband makes a political pilgrimage to Paris

For the Labour leader, France's president represents the possibility of stodgy social democratic substance beating slick conservative incumbency.

One of Ed Miliband’s closest advisors recently told me I’d start seeing the words “Real Change” behind the Labour leader when he was speaking in public. It was true. Since that conversation I’ve started spotting the two-word slogan that is meant to encapsulate the opposition leader’s offer to the nation. “Reconfiguring capitalism with a new ethos of responsibility in recognition of the obsolescence of the neo-liberal paradigm” wouldn’t fit on the banner.

Miliband’s contention (re-iterated in an interview with the Independent today) is that an ideological era – characterised by the cult of market supremacy and the accompanying denigration of government intervention – is drawing to a close. The next election, Miliband has told his MPs, will signal a choice for the country as significant as the installation of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. In this analysis, Miliband is the far-sighted herald of drastic change, the Tories are hapless custodians of a failed status quo.

Needless to say there are sceptics, including a few big hitters in the shadow cabinet. They worry that Miliband’s diagnosis of the shifting political terrain is really an elaborate intellectualisation of a familiar soft left conviction (delusion, some would say) that Britain is just itching to vote for social democracy but has somehow been prevented from doing so for a generation by Murdoch media and/or denied the opportunity because Labour was somehow captured by crypto-Conservative sell-out Blairites.

Either Ed Miliband is really onto something and will surf a wave of emerging cultural and political consciousness all the way into Downing Street, or he is the new Neil Kinnock – an easy repository of anti-government votes right up until polling day when he is unceremoniously dumped.

It is in the context of that broad ideological gamble that Miliband’s trip to Paris tomorrow to visit French President Francois Hollande must be seen. At one level, there is some petty political point-scoring going on. Diplomatic protocol would suggest that the British Prime Minister should get the invitation to the Elysee Palace ahead of the lowly opposition leader. But David Cameron failed to make diplomatic overtures to Monsieur Hollande when the Socialist leader was visiting Britain to campaign for ex-pat French voters in the UK. It seems the snub is being repaid and Miliband is happy to be the agent of repayment.

But Hollande is important to Miliband in a more profound way. His election coincided with a shift in the debate over economic policy in Europe. Crudely speaking, the arrival of the first Socialist French president for a generation seemed to signal a broadening recognition that the pursuit of fiscal retrenchment without compensating government action to spur growth and create jobs was proving economically suicidal. The advocates of raw austerity were, with varying degrees of zeal, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron – their approach was memorably satirised by Miliband as “Camerkozy economics.”

In other words, Miliband wants to be associated with a New European Order and to portray Cameron as the peddler of a decaying outmoded orthodoxy. For that to be a truly effective political device it would require people to (a) notice what happens in French politics and (b) think it in any way relevant to the UK. Both are tenuous assumptions. France had a Socialist President throughout the 1980s. Did Mitterandism touch British voters at all?

That doesn’t mean Miliband’s visit is pointless. For one thing, he really might end up as Prime Minister and so it can’t hurt to start building alliances. But also, the story of Hollande’s victory is psychologically important to the Labour leader. The French President was ridiculed as uncharismatic, soft around the edges, without definition, lacking the requisite authority. Even when he was ahead in opinion polls, pundits routinely predicted that the French would not endorse someone so un-presidential in manner … France’s Neil Kinnock. Sarkozy, they said, was the consummate media performer who should never be under-estimated.

It is not hard to see how that fable – the unglamorous social democrat tortoise and the flamboyant conservative hare – would appeal to Ed Miliband. Francois Hollande is more than a potential ally for the Labour leader; he is an electoral mascot.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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