Cameron’s vajazzling of the Tories is over. It's back to being right-wing

The Conservatives' claim to be anything other than a predictably right-wing party is the real casualty of last week.

The net result of the past week is that something resembling a left/right binary seems to have resumed in British politics. Labour has launched a poster slamming the Conservatives for giving a generous tax cut to millionaires. The Tories have tried to tie the appalling case of Mick Philpott to a larger argument in favour of welfare cuts. 

For both parties, their tactics resound with voters. The Tories think they have tapped into a powerful public resentment at something-for-nothing welfarism, while Labour channels public distaste against the rich for not paying their share.

As is often the case, opinion polls show that both sides are on to something. But Tory strategists and commentators who think they have managed to lash Ed Miliband to Mick Philpott overstate their case. Liam Byrne’s sabre-rattling in yesterday's Observer about enforcing a tougher contributory principle in the social security system, rewarding those who have paid into it, is easily understood by the public and leaves the Tories with the task of turning their bar-room rhetoric into policy. They are the government after all.

But Miliband’s enduring challenge in projecting his "one nation" politics is to bear the weight of public expectations – even ones the left doesn’t like - and carve out a new centre ground settlement around those concerns. Hence Labour's decision to devote a recent party political broadcast to immigration. 

However, he needs to be quicker on his feet in doing so. Byrne’s intervention should have been made in last Sunday’s papers, before the Philpott judgement, not yesterday's. (Despite spending the past 14 months doggedly making the case for the contributory principle, Byrne looks like he’s responding to events).

Miliband needs to hold on to his base, marshalling the energy of those on the left who despise the government’s rampant inequality, without becoming framed by their outrage, which is simply not shared by most voters. He needs to be clearer that the Owen Jones’s of the left speak for themselves and not the Labour Party.

But the Tory claim to be anything other than a predictably right-wing party is the real casualty of last week. Cameron never fundamentally altered the nasty party, he simply vajazzled it. It exposes his deep flaws as a leader, a lack of strategic acumen and an inability to put in the spadework that real change demands.

The resurgence of one nation Toryism he initially promised (his huskies and hoodies agenda) has now been scuttled by the imperative of fending off UKIP and restoring equilibrium to his increasingly fractious backbenchers, as David Talbot noted on The Staggers the other day.

So talk of "the big society" has faded to a whisper. Measuring happiness is passé when your rhetoric is actively seeking to sow division. While, most damningly, claims that "we’re all in this together" ring even hollower in a week where a millionaire Tory Chancellor sought political advantage in the deaths of six children.

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at in Ipswich, eastern England on 25 March, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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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