Has Ed Miliband smelt the coffee?

New poll suggests that the next Labour leader will need to rebrand the party completely.

Ed Miliband has responded to the results of a poll that Demos commissioned from YouGov to understand the outcome of the general election.

The poll shows that Labour's brand is in toxic territory.The next leader will inherit a party that is seen by voters as "out of touch" and which represents "the past" rather than the future.

Ed Miliband told the Independent:

This poll should leave Labour Party members in no doubt that we must change if we are to win again. We need a commitment to change in our policies, change in our party and movement, and change in the way we do politics. While we achieved a huge amount after 1997, the New Labour formula has had its day with the public, and we need to move on.

It's encouraging to see such a positive response to such disappointing poll findings. Throughout the leadership election, the man who co-ordinated Labour's manifesto has been strikingly willing to accept the defeat and rethink Labour's previously held policies and positions. He has been consistent in his critique of political tribalism and technocratic language.

After the Tory defeat in the 2005 general election, Michael Ashcroft published an analysis called Smell the Coffee: a Wake-Up Call for the Conservative Party. He argued: "The Conservative Party's problem is its brand. Conservatives loath being told this but it is an inescapable fact." That Ed Miliband has accepted Labour's brand problem so quickly is encouraging.

This week, Ed Balls wrote in the Times that Labour's next leader needs to be "both radical and credible". He is right. There is no question that his rejection of Brown and Darling's plan to halve the deficit is "radical", but is it "credible"? It is impossible to say, because he has not put a number on what he calls "a more sensible timetable for deficit reduction".

Yesterday's editorial in the Times complained that David Miliband risked damaging his prospects of emerging as "a serious figure capable of stewarding Britain in challenging economic times" because he has taken a bold approach to tax rises but not been credible on spending. The Times has a point, but it is unfair to single David Miliband out for special scrutiny. Being credible on deficit reduction and radical on new policy are minimum requirements for any new leader of the party.

Whoever wins is going to need to rebrand the party to reinforce their new policy agenda, and signal a clean break from Labour's past. Most of all, the new leader will need to show that he has listened to disaffected voters, not just party members.

Spending four months doing more than 50 hustings events, primarily of party members, is not the best context in which to be drafting the "speech of your life". But between winning the leadership on Saturday 25 September and delivering the leader's speech at conference on Tuesday, Labour's new leader is going to need to change gear and give an image-defining speech.

For many voters, the Labour leadership election will have barely registered in their consciousness. The clips on the evening news on Tuesday night at conference and the headlines in the newspapers on Wednesday morning will be the crucial first test of whether the new leader has "smelt the coffee".

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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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