Ed Miliband struggles to put rift stories behind him

"Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense."

This morning's Independent on Sunday has two Father's Day gifts for dad of two, Ed Miliband: one welcome, the other not.

The first is a bullish interview with the Labour leader -- "No regrets. No crisis. Ed Miliband hits back". The second is a ComRes poll which has Labour neck-and-neck* with the Tories and, more worryingly, gives Miliband a net approval rating of -27 when respondents are asked if he is "turning out to be a good leader for the Labour Party". The latter figure is down ten points on a month ago.

The interview offers Miliband a chance to respond to some of the claims made in a new biography "ED: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader" by James Macintyre and Mehdi Hasan, my former and present colleagues respectively.

One of the more explosive passages of the book suggests that while Ed Miliband recalls being open and honest about his intention to stand for leadership 13 months ago, David Miliband remembers things somewhat differently. Asked about these inconsistencies, Ed Miliband tells the IoS:

I'm not going to get into the detail of this. What we both agree on is that we talked before both our candidacies were declared and talked to him about the position too and we're both on the same page on that.

Yet it is in the detail where you will find the root of the unease between the two. As Mehdi writes in this week's New Statesman, drawing on his book:

Ed says he went to David's home in Primrose Hill, north London, on the evening of 12 May ... to inform him of his own decision to stand. In a story that Ed has since repeated to friends and in interviews, he says David was polite and understanding. "I'd rather you didn't run," David is said to have remarked. "I'd rather have a campaign where my brother is supporting me, if I'm really honest." But he then added: "I don't want me to be the reason you don't stand, so I think you should do it.

Or did he? Today, neither David nor Ed can agree on when or even if this crucial meeting occurred. David is emphatic there was no such meeting: his younger brother did not set foot in his house that week.

Another assertion -- that the brothers' wives Justine and Louise fell out over the leadership contest -- is dismissed as:

Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense. David and Louise were at our wedding a few weeks ago, and we had a great day. It was great that they were there and enjoyed themselves.

(As the IoS's Jane Merrick points out, however, David and Louise didn't attend the North London party that followed the ceremony.)

Elsewhere this morning there is no shortage of advice for the younger Miliband. Martin Ivens, writing in the Sunday Times (£), argues that Labour need to fight the coalition from the centre where they would represent a far more threatening foe than from the left. He writes:

The perverse effect of [the unions'] left-wing militancy has been to unite Cameron's and Clegg's warring troops against a common enemy. The Liberal Democrats owe the unions nothing -- they have never donated to the party's coffers -- and despise them as political dinosaurs. The Conservatives, wobbling like jellies over health, have every reason to show some backbone in a popular cause.

Meanwhile in the Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d'Ancona poses the following questions:

Was its engagement with New Labour, to borrow Blair's own language, "passionate" or merely "tactical"? Is Ed Miliband right to believe that you can shift the centre ground of politics when you are in Opposition? And is his renunciation of New Labour a step into the past or a handshake with the future?

*A YouGov/Sunday Times poll has better news for Labour (on 42 per cent), a five point lead of the Conservatives (37 per cent). The Liberal Democrats are back on 10 per cent.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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