The Tories think they can flush out Ed's inner red

Part of the strategy behind the land-grab on the "moral economy" is to nudge the Labour leader into

The fair capitalism debate that has rumbled on throughout this week looks likely to continue into the next one.

Business Secretary Vince Cable is delivering a speech on Tuesday on the subject of executive pay. (The coalition thinks some of it is too high, or rather, it isn't adequately indexed to commercial success.) Cable is speaking at an event hosted by the Social Market Foundation think tank, although Chuka Umunna, shadow Business Secretary, is trying to force Vince to announce his plans in parliament first. Umunna raised a point of order with the Speaker on Wednesday on the grounds that it is - as John Bercow has himself made clear in the past - bad form for ministers to bypass the House when presenting new policy.

It's a small point, but then parliamentary point-scoring is one of the few ways the opposition can have any impact at all. Trying to make Cable give an account of himself in parliament is a sensible tactical gambit since the Commons chamber is always a less forgiving environment than, well, anywhere really. Especially for Lib Dems.

Cable is quite a threat to Labour on this topic. His speech to the Lib Dem party conference last year covered a lot of the themes that are now established in the cannon of "responsible capitalism" rhetoric. And that was a week before Ed Miliband made his famous (at least to political obsessives) predators v producers speech at the Labour conference in Liverpool. Committed students of Vincology will know that his book - The Storm - concluded with a call for conscientious liberal reforms to capitalism in order to head off a populist attack from the far left and far right in the aftermath of the banking crisis.

Cable is also the only politician who can out-boast Ed Miliband when it comes to standing up to Rupert Murdoch - it is a badge of honour they both sport ostentatiously as evidence of their willingness to take on "vested interests".

As I wrote in my column this week, the Lib Dems badly need to be associated with something popular that the coalition is doing. Bashing bankers - a topic on which Vince has form - very much fits that bill.

The Tories, meanwhile, are playing a slightly different game. They are motivated chiefly by the need to close the "fair capitalism" subject down as a political playground for Ed Miliband. As I wrote in the column, Downing Street thinks it has enough material on responsibility and fairness in the Cameroon archive (going back to the brand decontamination "modernising" days) to persuade people that the prime minister has been into this stuff for years and that, by extension, it is not the exclusive property of the Labour leader.

But I now gather there is more to the strategy than a simple policy wardrobe raid. People close to Cameron are persuaded that Miliband's instincts are substantially to the left of his public pronouncements. The thinking in Number 10 is that, with a bit of pressure for ownership of this new centre ground, where it is fashionable to decry the ugly side of capitalism, Miliband can be nudged into a more fundamentalist stance. Part of the thinking behind Cameron's "moral markets" speech yesterday was to draw a dividing line between those who want capitalism to work better and those who think it is really a scam from top to bottom, with Labour on the wrong side. Cameron and Osborne want to maneouvre the Labour leader into a position where he sounds not pro-reform but anti-market. The Tories don't just want to expropriate Miliband, they want to drive him off into a tent by St Paul's.

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