In defence of Ed Miliband (and Maurice Glasman)

It's time to stop looking at today's politics through the lens of the 1980s and 1990s, Blairite and

We live in perplexing political times. Ed Miliband delivers a conference speech praising the best of British business in the highest possible terms, and is dismissed by so-called Labour bloggers as an anti-business leader. Long-time anti-racist campaigner Diane Abbott is denounced on national television for racial stereotyping through Twitter. And now Maurice Glasman writes an article for the New Statesman calling on Miliband to deploy the gifts that only he can deploy, and is roundly condemned for turning against his own leader.

There are, of course, some standard explanations for these confusions. We live with a press that loves nothing more than an internal party dispute. Journalists, bloggers and tweeters all long for challenges to authority, even for a frenzied leadership election of the sort that brought down many a Tory leader in the last two decades. And perhaps our politicians should chose their words more cautiously as a result.

But there is something more fundamental going on too.

Our politics is in flux and confusion is the almost inevitable result. The flux is the direct consequence of the crash of 2008. That event did not just bring over a decade of Labour government to its end, it also displayed the bankruptcy of a political, social and economic order that began in the 1980s and continued unabated through the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

That order sometimes goes by the misleading name of "neo-liberalism." But it was much more straightforward than the technical jargon suggests. It was an order premised on the idea that the financial might of the City of London would power economic growth in the UK so long as it was left essentially unfettered by the demands of normal democratic politics.

The tax revenues that then flowed from the City would prop up the rest of the country, either by supporting employment through public sector expansion or by provided a financial guarantee for welfare benefits. Labour opposed this order in its early days. But it eventually largely capitulated to it. In the Party's "New Labour" formation, it openly committed itself to maintaining the same order, just running it more efficiently and more equitably than the Conservatives had.

The crash brought all of this to an end.

Nobody now can seriously deny that our politics cannot be run like that anymore. Any objective observer of our situation would accept the need to "rebalance" our economy, to transform our national provision of skills and training, to open up access to capital for small and medium size businesses across the country, to find a way of ensuring real and sustainable private sector growth.

But even if our situation should be clear, Ed Miliband is the single political leader who has consistently demonstrated that he really appreciates just how significant a change Britain's new situation demands.

He was the first to identify the dangers our economic malaise posed not just to the poor but to the vast middle class of our country. He was the first to call for a new culture of responsibility, not just among those dependent on benefits but on those in our boardrooms and among our nation's shareholders. He was the first to highlight both the moral evil and the economic stupidity of runaway executive pay.

Such far-reaching calls for change scare people. Most clearly, they scare some members of our political class and our commentariat who would prefer things to go back to the way they were. There are always going to be some people who long for the familiar tussles of the past, who feel they understood the minor differences between a Blair and a Brown, or even a Blair and a Thatcher.

They understand our contemporary politics through the lens of the 1980s and the 1990s. And everything is classified in the terms that those decades presented: pro-business or anti-business; pro-public sector or anti-public sector; pro-privatisation or anti-privatisation; Blairite or Brownite.

But this is to make a terrible error. Our politics is necessarily different now. The choices are not the same. Our hope remains, of course, but our aspirations are necessarily chastened by the experience of the crash.

As Miliband reminded us in his New Year message, Labour must now offer a programme for social justice suitable for austere times, not for times of boom. That will require imaginative thinking, tough decisions and, most importantly of all, real political courage. When someone points that out -- whoever they may be -- it should not be taken as a sign of contemporary disloyalty nor a treacherous abandonment of the achievements of the past, but as an appreciation of the seriousness of the situation that we face. If our politicians do not have the courage to face the challenge head-on, then it will be our country that suffers as a result.

Marc Stears is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Professor of Political Theory at Oxford.

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

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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