Labour, the West Ham United of politics

The party that eschews the long ball.

As another less than stellar week for the Labour leadership draws to a close, it seems to me that the Labour Party has become -- and I mean this as a compliment -- the West Ham United of British politics, and this will be the saving (at least until the electorate get a say) of Ed Miliband.

The Tory Party, by contrast, act like the trigger happy Premier League Chairman for whom only continuous success is an acceptable norm. Look at the grumbles from inside the party at David Cameron requiring a coalition to get into government. It's like they won the FA Cup but the impatient man at the top thinks the league is the only prize worth having. No wonder William Hague described his party as acting like "an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide".

Not so the Labour Party where in the fine traditions of the Hammers winning appears to be rather less important to the members than playing in the right way. And good on them for it

Much has been written about Labour's reluctance to ditch its leaders, no matter how unelectable they might appear to anyone standing back from the fray far enough to see the woods from the trees (which is 83 per cent of the UK population according to a recent YouGov poll). This is often put down to cowardice, often from the likely heir apparent who knows that the assassin wielding the knife seldom ends up on the throne.

But actually, I think it's more to do with principle.

Looking at it through the other end of the telescope, the name of the most electorally successful PM in Labour's history was booed and heckled when Ed Miliband dropped the "Blair" word into his speech at the last Labour Party conference.

Sure, most Labour members can cite a long list of achievements during the Blair years of which they are rightly proud. But at the end of the day, they still think Blair was more concerned with winning in itself than with winning in the right way. As Matthew d'Ancona described it in the London Evening Standard earlier this week:

One of Tony Blair's many strengths as he plotted Labour's return to office as Opposition leader between 1994 and 1997 was an unshakeable awareness that the electorate's anxieties must be addressed before any progress can be made. This remained at the heart of his politics until -- almost literally -- they carted him out of Downing Street.

This is a view of leadership I suspect many Labour Party members would recognise, but would be reluctant to endorse. They see Blair as adopting the long ball strategy that might win a few matches but isn't playing the game as it was first intended. And unless you're playing politics with the ball on the ground and with passing at a premium, you'll never have their admiration.

Whatever his foibles and weaknesses, Ed is undoubtedly playing by their rules. Just like West Ham, who have had just 14 managers in their 116 year history, Labour doesn't change the man at the top if he's playing the Beautiful Game, whatever the results on the field may be.

And I have total respect for Labour for doing that. Though they might want to remember that West Ham no longer play in the Premier League. Or that, under their current manager, have given up playing the Beautiful Game in an effort to get back there.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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