Osborne echoes Miliband as he calls for government to set "the rules" of the market

The Chancellor's announcement of a cap on payday loan charges undermines the coalition's attack on the Labour leader's "Marxist universe".

It was as recently as last year that George Osborne was arguing against a cap on payday loan charges. He told MPs on 6 March 2012: 

I completely understand the concern about excessive and very high interest charges, which have been a problem for many years. I think it is better to tackle the specific abuses. The Government are conducting a review of the cost of credit to consumers, but by tackling very specific abuses such as the roll-over of loans and the use of continuous authority, we think we are getting to the really hard cases and abuses that we want to see ended. I have to say—this was certainly the view of the previous Government, too—that although it could be worth looking at, simply introducing a cap might have the effect of pushing a lot of people into a completely unregulated black economy. I am not sure that any of us would want to see that.

But a cap is precisely what the coalition has announced today, declaring that there is "growing evidence" in support of the move. Interviewed on the Today programme, George Osborne confirmed that the cap would apply not just to the usurious interest rates charged by Wonga and co but also to arrangement fees, penalty fees and rollovers. He also rather euphemistically acknowledged the role "individual MPs" had played in the decision, before (after some prompting from Evan Davis) eventually referencing Stella Creasy by name.

The Walthamstow MP, who has campaigned relentlessly on this issue for three years, is rightly declaring victory today. She said this morning: "Just two months ago this Government criticised Ed Miliband for wanting to reform broken markets, and now today we see them following Labour's lead on the need to act against legal loan-sharking...That the Government is today admitting it got it wrong in opposing these measures and is still playing catch up on how to combat these problems shows it is Labour who have the ideas and determination to tackle Britain's cost of living crisis."

On Today, Osborne sounded remarkably Miliband-esque as he spoke of how government "needs to step in to create the rules of the market" and to ensure that capitalism "works for hardworking people". The Chancellor's rhetoric was all the more surprising given his private warnings to Conservative MPs not to play on Labour's turf by mimicking Miliband's focus on living standards. 
 
Osborne might be right when he argues that those who support a free market system have never believed in "complete laissez-faire" but the problem for him is that the government has often given the impression that they should. After Miliband called for a freeze on energy prices, David Cameron accused him of living in a "Marxist universe where you control these things" and declared that he needed a "basic lesson in economics".
 
The Treasury's response to those noting this irony is to argue that the government will intervene in markets (as in the case of Help to Buy) when it can do so to the genuine benefit of people; a cap on energy prices remains a "gimmick" that will help no one. But after taking action in this area and conceding that the state has a duty to set "the rules" of the market, it will become harder for the Tories to dismiss Miliband's calls for it to do so elsewhere too. 
George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is 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