Why I think Ed Balls “gets it”

We need a robust leader who can defend Labour’s legacy, and I think Ed is that leader.

When Gordon Brown announced he was standing down I was genuinely open-minded about who to support in the Labour leadership contest. I'd not given the matter of his successor much thought; I wanted Gordon to win the election for Labour, and stay as our leader and our prime minister, and all my energies were focused on helping him achieve that end. Neither did I have strong feelings of antipathy towards any of the likely candidates. Indeed, I liked and respected them all. (Still do, for the avoidance of doubt!)

So I was starting from a clean slate. But then I read an article by Ed Balls in the Guardian which set out why we had lost the election and how he felt we'd lost touch with our voters over the years. "They thought we weren't on their side any more," he wrote. And I thought, to use a phrase that is already becoming well worn: "He gets it."

I then met with Ed, for a long chat, and that same phrase kept coming into my mind. He gets it. He "gets" what people were saying to me on the doorstep in the election campaign. He understands why the aspirational working class, who we fought hard to win back from the clutches of Thatcher in the early days of New Labour, had started deserting us in droves, and, more importantly, he understands why and how we need to win them back.

I also liked his focus on bread-and-butter issues, and his ability to communicate like a "normal" person. He didn't talk in vague buzzwords, or as if he was addressing a Fabian seminar (or Progress or Compass, to keep things even-handed!). He talked about real issues, and real people, and real communities, not an abstracted version of those things. And his instincts on many of those issues were right.

And, of course, he's intelligent and experienced and decisive and strong. All the qualities we need in a leader. Some say he's too combative, and it's clear that of all the shadow ministers he is going to thrive in opposition. He's been the first to take the fight to the Tories.

Yes, he gets far more flak from them than other leading Labour politicians, but I think he should wear that as a badge of honour. We need a leader who is robust in defence of Labour's legacy, and strong in his challenge to those who seek to destroy it with their cuts.

But we also need someone who will lead Labour back into government. Someone who has learned the right lessons from the past 13 years and from really listening, properly listening, to what voters are saying. Ed has already started on that journey.

He fought a tough campaign in his new constituency, and has had hundreds if not thousands of those "on the doorstep" conversations. It's why he gets it -- because he gets them: his people, his voters. He's tough enough not to pander to people if he thinks they're wrong. He's principled enough not to take up false positions in the hope of personal advantage. But at the same time he realises that the ordinary voter matters.

It would be very easy in opposition to embark on a period of navel-gazing, to turn inwards, to publish pamplets and hold seminars, to talk about the voters instead of talking to them. But it would be wrong to do that. We need to start the fightback now: to expose the new government with vigour and determination; to present a coherent alternative; and to reconnect with our lost voters. And I think Ed's the person to do that.

Kerry McCarthy is MP for Bristol East. She blogs here,and can be found on twitter as @KerryMP

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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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