Miliband is remaking Labour as a true people's party

The reforms announced today will enhance Labour's traditional links and lay the foundations for new, open and powerful alliances.

Ed Miliband and the Labour Party cross a watershed today, opening up a new phase in the history of the Labour movement and the possibility of a new openness in British politics. The announcements Ed has made today are about renewing and revitalising not just our party, but the wider politics within which we operate. They mark the beginning of a bold and historic attempt to make Labour a true people’s party once more, a party of mass membership, with deep and strong roots in communities and constituencies across the whole of our One Nation. And the unions are not an impediment to our achieving this, they are the key.

Three million people or more are today members of trade unions affiliated to the Labour and thus have a special relationship with our party. That relationship is hugely important. It anchors our party in work and community and ordinary people’s lives. It must never be broken because that would break Labour and break our ability to govern once more in the interests of working people in the teeth of corporate power, financial elites and other entrenched vested interests.

But that historic relationship must be renewed and strengthened, to reflect a modern world where people – including trade unionists – want more from politics. They rightly want a greater sense of personal connection and engagement with institutions, including the Labour Party, that have become too distant from their lives and concerns. The change to the process of affiliation which we have laid out today is about inviting individual trade unionists to affiliate to Labour in a more direct and conscious manner than ever before – to take a fuller part in the future direction of the Labour Party, and through it in the future direction of our country.

The prize, for those individual members, for the unions of which they are a part, and for Labour, is to come together anew, powerfully and openly, as a movement for change in our country. A movement that builds an economy and a society that delivers opportunities and better outcomes – wealth and education and culture and community – for everyone, not just for those with money or connections at the top. We have to walk that walk on behalf of the many once more, as well as talking the talk.

That change will entail challenge and risk for all concerned. For our party it means scrutinising the routes by which people are selected to represent our party, to make sure that money or other means can’t load the dice in favour or one candidate or another. It also means we will need to work harder in the future to persuade individuals, and the unions they belong to, that they should support Labour, financially and philosophically. But relationships are strengthened by such tests and I believe we can emerge from this challenge with our traditional links enhanced and the foundations laid for forging new, open and powerful alliances with individual citizens and other community organisations – including currently unaffiliated trade unions.

However, it is not just the Labour movement that Ed Miliband has thrown down a gauntlet to today. Our pledge to make the relationship between the trade unions and the party even more transparent, to curb the role of money in our politics and to open up our party more than ever before is a challenge to all political leaders in the UK, but especially to David Cameron and his Conservative Party. And though people in the media and our political opponents will ask questions today about exactly how these changes will work within our party, Ed Miliband has been clear that, whatever the precise mechanisms, he is determined to bring about this historic reform. Far less clear is whether David Cameron has the courage or the integrity to pick up the gauntlet and put his own house in order.

Will David Cameron match Ed’s pledge to do something about MPs holding down jobs outside Parliament? It’s anathema to most of our constituents and the vast majority of Labour MPs, but second nature to so many on the Tory benches. Don’t hold your breath. Or will he do something to acknowledge the rottenness of a small number of hugely wealthy individual donors bankrolling the operations of the Conservative Party? No longer Lord Ashcroft, perhaps – though his millions helped secure seats for so many – but there are plenty of others queuing up to buy patronage and policy. Don’t take my word for it: just follow the money to seats in the Lords, the tax cuts for millionaires and the corporate bank accounts that the Treasury can’t or won’t touch.

The contrast in British politics and the choice that the British people will face at the next election is clearer than ever today. Labour under Ed Miliband wants a new politics and a new deal for the British people: one based on transparency and openness, fairness and trust, the interests of the many not the few. Today’s announcements underline those ambitions, and the courage and conviction with which Ed will pursue them. We are clear that Britain needs stronger trade unions, with more members and stronger rights and representation in public and private sectors. Their decline over the last 30 years has seen a fall in wages, living standards and social solidarity that Labour is committed to reversing. But Labour is equally clear that the Falkirk fix and David Cameron’s crony Conservatism are the last gasp of the old politics, of a way of governing Britain which the British people are rejecting, and we are determined to consign them both to the past.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech at The St Bride Foundation, Fleet Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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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