Election 2010 Lookahead: Wednesday 21 April

The who, when and where of the campaign.

Labour

Labour candidates Eleanor Tunnicliffe and Brian Tomlinson will take part in a general election hustings chaired by Bamber Gascoigne at Duke St Baptist Church, Richmond (7.30pm). Chancellor Alistair Darling debates with Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne and Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable on BBC2's The Daily Politics (see below).

Conservatives

Former defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind will present Conservative defence policy ahead of the 6 May general election at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies in London (5.30pm). David Cameron will make an appearance on BBC3's Dermot Meets...programme this evening (see below). Shadow chancellor George Osborne debates with Chancellor Alistair Darling and Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable on BBC2's The Daily Politics' (see below). Conservative candidates Zac Goldsmith and Deborah Thomas will take part in a general election hustings chaired by Bamber Gascoigne at Duke St Baptist Church, Richmond (7.30pm).

Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg has an early start as he hosts a press conference with Lib Dem spokesperson for children, schools and families at the Work Foundation in London (7.30am). He later joins Lib Dem candidate for Camborne and Redruth Julia Goldsworthy in primary school Q&A on the campaign trail at Redruth Cricket Club, Trewirgie Hill, Cornwall (2.30pm, before making an appearance on BBC3's Dermot Meets... programme this evening (see below). Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable debates with Chancellor Alistair Darling and shadow chancellor George Osborne on BBC2's The Daily Politics (see below). He may also join Lib Dem candidate Susan Kramer in a general election hustings chaired by Bamber Gascoigne at Duke St Baptist Church, Richmond this evening (7.30pm).

The media

BNP leader Nick Griffin spoke on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. In the afternoon, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will take part in a special election call edition of Radio 4's The World at One programme, where he will respond to comments and questions from listeners (1pm). Chancellor Alistair Darling, Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne and Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable will debate economic policy on BBC2's The Daily Politics' (2.15pm), where they will be put through their paces by Andrew Neil and BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders. David Cameron and Nick Clegg will be interviewed by Dermot O'Leary for BBC3 on the Dermot Meets... programme. The interview with David Cameron will air at 8pm followed by Nick Clegg at 8.30pm. The emphasis will be on questions submitted by first-time voters.

Other parties

Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Alex Salmond will give a speech at the Scottish Trades Union Congress conference in Caird Hall, Dundee today. In Belfast, the Social Democratic and Labour Party from Northern Ireland launches its manifesto at 10am. The nationalist party from Northern Ireland won three Westminster seats in 2005, as they had in 1997 and 2001.

Away from the campaign

A fleet of coaches laid on by the government to bring Britons stranded in Europe by the ash cloud sets out from Madrid today. HMS Albion is expected to arrive in Portsmouth tonight at the earliest, after setting sail from Santander in northern Spain yesterday, to repatriate British troops returned from Afghanistan and around 200 priority British civilians who were stranded on the continent. HMS Ocean and HMS Ark Royal have both been sent to service unspecified ports on the Channel, as thousands of British travellers continue to gather there.

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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