The Guardian turns yellow, the Times blue

Those editorials -- abridged.

Of the four national newspapers that backed Tony Blair in 2005, only one will back Gordon Brown this time. The Sun abandoned Labour last autumn and today the Guardian and the Times do the same, putting their support behind the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, respectively.

In this unpredictable election campaign, one thing is certain -- the Daily Mirror will stick with Brown.

There's a certain formula to editorials of the sort the Guardian and the Times have written today. Both feature a laundry-list of achievements and failures across by all three parties. If you haven't got time to read the two in full (coming in at a combined 3,600 words), here they are, in abridged form:

 

Times

 

Likes Labour for:

  • delivering urban renewal and prosperity
  • introducing civil partnerships
  • military intervention for "noble principle" in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq
  • handling of the banking crisis

Dislikes Labour for:

  • improvident public spending
  • savaging the private pensions industry
  • selling off Britain's gold reserves "much too cheaply"
  • destroying trust in politics

Likes the Conservatives for:

  • promising to reduce the burden on enterprise and entrepreneurship
  • prioritising education, social policy and the environment
  • David Cameron's "energy, intelligence and integrity"
  • "measured and intelligent" approach to immigration
  • its "bold vision" of the Big Society

Dislikes the Conservatives for:

  • a "worrying streak of pessimism" in its foreign policy
  • its decision to abandon mainstream centre-right parties in the EU
  • its promise to match Labour's NHS spending
  • its desire to maintain the aid budget

Likes the Lib Dems for:

  • electrifying the election campaign

Dislikes the Lib Dems for:

  • its muddled policy on the euro
  • anti-business populism
  • promising to abandon Trident
  • promising to break up the banks

 

Guardian

 

Likes Labour for:

  • its "absolutely vital calls" during the financial crisis
  • the "salvation" of the health service
  • its "unmatched" record on poverty
  • major renovation of schools
  • the minimum wage
  • civil partnerships and the extension of protection for minority groups

Dislikes Labour for:

  • nurturing of the deregulatory system which contributed to the financial crisis
  • choosing to stick with Gordon Brown as leader
  • Brown's inability to "articulate a vision, a plan, or an argument for the future"
  • its inaction over pensions, public debt and housing
  • its pursuit of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • its uncritical support of the United States and "mealy-mouthed" approach to Europe
  • encroachment on civil liberties
  • increased centralisation while promising constitutional change

Likes the Conservatives for:

  • David Cameron's efforts to move the party to the centre ground
  • its modern thinking on civil liberty, the environment and aspects of social policy

Dislikes the Conservatives for its:

  • inability to translate this conversion into detailed policy
  • promise to rip up the Human Rights Act
  • hostility to electoral reform
  • alliances with some of Europe's "wackier xenophobes"
  • climate change scepticism on the backbenches
  • muddled approach to the financial crisis
  • inheritance tax cuts for the very wealthy

Likes the Lib Dems for its:

  • commitment to electoral reform, political and constitutional reform
  • approach to civil liberties and criminal justice
  • long term commitment to the green agenda
  • commitment to education
  • "comfort" with Europe
  • willingness to contemplate a future without Trident
  • foreign policy calls, notably over the Iraq War
  • support for press freedoms

Dislikes the Lib Dems for its:

  • hawkishness over the deficit
  • planned tax cuts and implied "slashing" of public services
  • failure to promote women and ethnic minority candidates

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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