Miliband renews attack on New Labour ahead of "peace meeting" with Blair

The Labour leader tells his MPs that it is right to move on from New Labour, which was "formed 19 years ago", but new polling revives doubts over the party's performance.

Ed Miliband addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party last night for the first time since Tony Blair's intervention in the New Statesman and took the opportunity to again rebut his criticisms. He told MPs:

New Labour was formed 19 years ago. Tony Blair taught us the world changes, and the world does change, and we will learn our lessons.

After Blair warned him not to "tack right on immigration and Europe, and tack left on tax and spending", Miliband pointedly added:

I am incredibly proud of our record, but we need to learn this truth: opposition leaders who say their government got it right and the electorate got it wrong remain leaders of the opposition.

The party, he suggested, had become a victim of its own success (or at least the coalition's failure).  "Eighteen months ago, people were saying we were not up to it. Now they are claiming we are too effective an opposition". 

Miliband was aided by a spirited John Prescott, who declared that it was "crazy" for Labour start "dividing" less than three weeks before the local elections. "Let’s stop complaining and start campaigning," he said. As Tessa Jowell revealed on the Daily Politics yesterday, Blair and Miliband will meet later this week (possibly tomorrow, when they will both attend Margaret Thatcher's funeral) in an attempt to heal the rift.

At last night's meeting, Miliband compared Labour to "a football team that is winning at half-time" but given that no modern opposition has ever won without being at least 20 points ahead (the Tories' peak lead from 2005-10 was 26 points; Labour's highest to date is 16) many MPs remain alarmed at the slightness of the party's advantage.

The latest Guardian/ICM poll puts Labour just six points ahead of the Tories, while the YouGov daily tracker has them eight points ahead. Worse for Miliband, the ICM survey suggests that Labour's lead could be in spite of, rather than because of his performance as leader. The poll gives him a net approval rating of -23, well below Cameron's -11 and Osborne's -14 and worse than the -17 he recorded at the nadir of his leadership in December 2011. 

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority. Conversely, Margaret Thatcher won in 1979 despite trailing Jim Callaghan by 19 points as the "best prime minister".

But Labour MPs are also troubled by the Tories' continuing advantage on the economy, another historically reliable indicator of the general election result. The latest YouGov poll shows their lead stretching from one point to four. 

Blair's intervention aside, the last month has been a successful one for Miliband. David Miliband's departure for New York has finally drawn a line under the fraternal soap opera and his Commons statement on Thatcher was rightly praised by Conservative MPs for its statesmanlike qualities. But once politics as normal resumes after Wednesday, Blair is unlikely to be the only one posing tough questions for Miliband. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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