Miliband's reshuffle was post-Blairite, not anti-Blairite

The changes were designed to accelerate the process of re-branding Labour as neither old nor new; neither Blair nor Brown – but wholly Milibandist.

At some point the redundancy of classifying Labour MPs into "Blairites" and "Brownites" will be complete. That point is not now, judging by much of the reaction to Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet reshuffle. The demotions of Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg – all usually characterised as devotees of the Tonyist creed – has been seized by Conservatives as yet more proof that the opposition has taken leave of its centrist senses.

The counter-argument from Miliband’s allies is that Blair acolytes have been promoted too. Charlie Falconer has been drafted in as a senior advisor. Tristram Hunt is the new shadow education secretary ("not exactly Len McCluskey’s idea of the best person for that job," as one very senior party figure said to me last night). Douglas Alexander has the role of chairing Labour’s election campaign – and he ran David Miliband’s leadership campaign.

But then, if you want to be all purist about political genealogy, you could say that Alexander is really a Brownite who wandered only half-way down the road to Blairite perdition/virtuous Damascene conversion (delete according to factional inclinations) by backing the ill-starred older brother in 2010.

One principal motive behind the reshuffle is to accelerate the process of re-branding Labour as neither old nor new; neither Blair nor Brown – but wholly Milibandist. A bunch of MPs from the 2010 parliamentary intake have been promoted. They now make up nearly a third of the shadow cabinet. That puts important jobs in the hands of people who can plausibly claim to be untainted by the feuds of the last administration. That is no small advantage.

The fact that Labour’s haggard slump to defeat in 2010 is so recent poses problems for Miliband both in terms of voter perception and party management. It makes it hard for him to manoeuvre in any direction without it being interpreted through the prism of ancient vendetta. Never mind left or right, the problem has been going forwards when so much media coverage – and so many of the personal dynamics around the shadow cabinet table – have been coloured by brooding recollections of who briefed against whom one rainy Wednesday afternoon in 2003. The publication of memoirs by former Brown media hit man Damian McBride on the eve of the Labour conference only reinforced the impression that some new cast members were required on stage. As one beneficiary of yesterday’s reshuffle put it, the important thing was to have more people who could say, when asked about the stories in that book, "Damian McWho?" In other words, Miliband needs more people around who can claim to be focused on the future not the past – and look as if they mean it. That, at least, is the ambition. It hasn't escaped anyone's notice that the most senior figures from Brown's days in Downing Street keep their seats at Labour's top table. Some faces from the past are more past-it than others, apparently.

One appointment that captures the complex nature of Miliband's motives is the decision to put Rachel Reeves in charge of the work and pensions brief. Reeves has spent the last couple of years pondering the fiscal challenge that Labour faces in the next parliament if it wins an election. As recently as last month she was resisting the idea of making a pre-conference commitment to scrap the coalition's "bedroom tax" on the grounds that the Tories would fling it back at the opposition as proof of spending laxity. By contrast, Byrne was the one pushing for the bedroom tax to be opposed, partly because he felt that demoralised activists urgently needed something to cheer them up. That doesn’t quite support the claim that an axe-wielding Blairite ultra has been ditched to carve out space for lefty lurches.

The big problem with Byrne wasn’t exactly his views. It was his image as the outrider for the party’s furthest right flank that made it hard for large sections of the party to swallow the message that welfare reform and benefit cuts are unavoidable. The messenger was contaminating the message for people whose consent was vital for keeping Miliband’s show on the road. I doubt we will see the opposition now suddenly promise to lavish more spending on social security. On the contrary, a central part of Reeves’s task will be to persuade voters that Labour can be trusted to manage the DWP budget prudently. But she might be able to do it in a way that doesn’t provoke cries of crypto-Tory treason from the grassroots.

Miliband doesn’t need to sack or demote "Blairites" to move left or distance himself from the New Labour legacy. The conventional reading of his leadership suggests he’s done a fair amount of that already. He does, however, want to get beyond the stage where his every action is subjected to a test of Blairism and found wanting by people who suppose that Blair had the only formula for delivering a Labour election victory. 2015 could never be a re-run of 2005 or 2001 or 1997. There must be another way.

Of course, the theoretical existence of such an alternative route to power doesn’t prove that Miliband has found it.  

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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