Ed Miliband and the paradox of party reform

In order to open up their parties, leaders end up on relying on centralising devices.

Ed Miliband's proposal to scrap elections to the shadow cabinet raises some interesting questions about the challenges of opposition and political reform in general - interesting, that is, to people who are interested in that sort if thing. (Civilians with better things to think about on a sunny Friday in June, look away now.)

It is surely the right thing to do. Miliband needs to assert authority, not least because of the inelegant shape of his own electoral mandate. He wasn't the first choice of a majority of Labour MPs or the members, but he is the leader as legitimately installed under the party's (arcane) process. He doesn't need a rolling load of ballots that are irrelevant to non-Labour voters, distract MPs and generate chatter about competing mandates. Hence resistance also to the idea of a directly elected party chair. He is the boss; he should appoint his team.

One of many debilitating features of the Blair-Brown feud and then the abortive coups once Brown was in power was the decline in respect for the office of party leader; old-fashioned discipline. Ed needs to get that back.

Of course, curbing internal democracy never looks great. It is particularly hazardous for Miliband if it starts to feed into a sense of obsessive top-down management. That has dangerous resonance when he needs to rebut a "son of Brown" notion doing the rounds. (The charge being that, like his predecessor, the new leader is too cautious, too focused on tactical positioning and wedded to the techniques of command-and-control.)

It is also worth remembering that the current shadow cabinet mostly came into Labour politics as Neil Kinnock was fighting a battle to make the party electable, which meant very heavy-handed purges from the centre. I don't for a moment think the situation is equivalent, but I do suspect - and shadow cabinet members have told me - that the scars of that era have left the Labour high command wary of devolving too much power to the party periphery.

But there lies a paradox of opposition. The leader has to demonstrate that he is changing the party, which requires signalling openness to new ideas and willingness to promote fresh faces. But inertia is always a powerful force, so the leader must often impose change from the centre. David Cameron struggled with this problem. He recognised the importance of changing the party's image through candidate selection, but his clumsy attempts to impose an "A-List" backfired. Local associations rebelled and the plan had to be watered down. Instead of proving Tory modernity, the A-List approach revealed how resistant the party was to change. Miliband will also have to impose his will on candidate selection - all leaders do - but he'll be reluctant to start a round of local squabbles about golden boys and girls "parachuting" in.

There is trouble brewing on this front. Miliband is attracted to the idea of opening up party structures to draw in involvement from community activists who might be sympathetic to Labour but are not die-hard members. The ultimate goal should be to make the local Labour party a place that people turn to if they have concerns about local issues and want to engage in ground-level politics; not a place that where only very angry people go to rant about the Gaza blockade (I caricature crudely, sorry).

The problem is that any attempt to change the profile of local Labour parties and candidate selection in particular quickly turns into a conversation about building a new membership base, which is - in Labour terms - the age-old aspiration of those who would like to dilute the influence of theunions.

It is a fight worth having. A Labour MP who knows Ed Miliband's thinking on these matters put it to me well the other day when he said: "In opposition, what you do with the party becomes a proxy for what you would do with the public realm." In other words, since you don't have the power to change the country, prove that you mean business by changing the party. And there's no doubt it needs changing - otherwise it wouldn't have been evicted from office.

I suspect that if Cameron had gone about things differently and successfully reformed local Conservative Associations, he would be in a much stronger position now. He should have turned them into vigorous agents of social action - embassies for his "Big Society" instead of places where you have to swear an oath of loathing for the European Union before crossing the threshold. As things stand, Cameron is still caught between the competing needs to placate his right wing and prove to the country that the Tories are a moderate, socially conscientious party. His modernisation project stalled in the centre.

No doubt Miliband has studied that example carefully. At least, I hope he has.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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