Shadow cabinet minister and senior adviser to Ed Miliband, Jon Trickett, speaks in parliament. Photograph: BBC.
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Jon Trickett: Labour must remember every day that it's a "democratic socialist" party

In an exclusive interview, the left-wing shadow cabinet minister discusses his new role as a senior adviser to Ed Miliband. 

Few Labour MPs know Ed Miliband better than Jon Trickett. It was in 2005, shortly after Miliband was elected to parliament, that he told the Commons newcomer he would one day lead the party. "He found it a surprising thought, but so it proved," Trickett recalls when I speak to him. The shadow cabinet member, whose Hemsworth constituency neighbours Miliband's seat of Doncaster North, was taught by the Labour leader's father Ralph Miliband while studying for an MA in political sociology at Leeds University. "I vaguely knew him and David when they were children," he tells me. 

Trickett went on to play a defining role in Miliband's leadership campaign, providing the psephological analysis (the five million votes lost by Labour between 1997 and 2010, just one million of which went to the Tories) that convinced him that a break with New Labour was not just a moral necessity but a political one. In 2011 he entered the shadow cabinet as shadow cabinet office minister and was later named shadow minister without portfolio and deputy party chair in the 2013 reshuffle.

The Yorkshireman has long been one of Miliband's most trusted consiglieres, often used as a sounding board before major speeches and policy announcements. Now, with six months remaining until the general election, this role has been formalised with the left-winger joining the Labour leader's office as a senior adviser in Wednesday night's reshuffle

"I’ve been around a long time," the 64-year-old reflects. "I was the leader of the council [Leeds], I worked for Mandelson for 18 months and I worked for Gordon for about 18 months and I was on the backbenches for a long time. I think I’ve got a wide experience of the labour movement. I was first elected in the middle of the miners’ strike in 1984 as a councillor and I think I can bring to the table a lot of practical experience and hopefully an understanding of economic and social trends." 

Before entering elected office (he became an MP in a 1996 by-election), Trickett worked as a builder and a plumber for 12 years, making him one of the few senior politicians with experience of blue collar labour. "There was no money and I had to have a job," he says. But he adds: "I also had a university degree, so I’ve got an unusual background and it’s hard to say that I’m either fish or fowl from that point of view. I did work for a long time and for most of that time I was self-employed or working as part of an SME and I think I’ve got a good insight into what it’s like."

Trickett, who left school aged 15 with no qualifications before returning to education, adds: "Everything that I’ve achieved in life was by the support of a loving family and by pulling myself up by my bootstraps, basically." One of his greatest political passions is Labour's Future Candidates Programme, devoted to recruiting more people from working class backgrounds to the party. 

After serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Peter Mandelson between 1997 and 1998 (departing following Mandelson's resignation), Trickett distinguished himself as a backbench radical, chairing the left-wing group Compass and campaigning against the Iraq war and the renewal of Trident. He later ran Jon Cruddas's deputy leadership campaign in 2007 before returning to government, 10 years after his first job, as PPS to Gordon Brown. 

With the election of Miliband as leader in September 2010, Trickett was gifted with a new opportunity to exercise political influence. When I ask what qualities he identified in the Labour leader, he tells me: "There are two things about Ed which are remarkable. One is his capacity to absorb huge amounts of information without seemingly even working at it. He’s got an enormous brain, a very, very powerful mind.

"The second is a capacity to empathise with others, which isn’t always well represented in the media. He does have a capacity to encounter people and somehow be able to immediately relate to them in a very human way. It’s not something we often see but I did find that remarkable in a world in Westminster where everybody’s busy, preoccupied with their own selves, projecting their own images. Ed always seemed to take the time to find out about other people. That combination of qualities is very, very rare."

More than perhaps any other member of the shadow cabinet, the comradely Trickett is an unabashed socialist. "I read somebody say the other day that it’s an old-fashioned notion. I do regard myself as a socialist and I always have, a democratic socialist. For me the ideas of socialism are what inspired me to join the Labour Party. Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, which Tony Blair agreed, starts off with the words 'The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party' and I think it’s important that we remember that every day in every way.

"We are a democratic socialist party, we’re the party in Britain that has the largest number of socialists in it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what we’re about. Now, there'll be debates about exactly what we mean by that, but it certainly means a society which isn’t obscenely unequal and it also means not being afraid, if a market is failing, to intervene to protect the public interest."

He cites Miliband's plan to radically restructure the energy market as an example of socialism in action. "The idea that five or six companies should effectively control almost the manufacturing and the distribution of energy, then between themselves drive up the cost of the energy is demonstrably not in the public interest.

"Our policy to freeze fuel prices, it’s not widely understood. We’re going to freeze fuel but then we’re going to do structural reform because prices rising is a symptom of the underlying problem, which is that the market in energy isn’t working."

The challenge, he acknowledges, is communicating these ideas in a way accessible to voters. "I know I can fall into the trap of using what you might call Westminster language, but it’s not how I communicate with friends, neighbours and work colleagues at all ... I like to think I speak Yorkshire, that’s the language I try to use. I try to speak in a very plain, northern, Yorkshire dialect hopefully it’s my way of communicating." Labour, he says, must speak in "the plainest language, in primary colours, so that people understand exactly what it is that we’re saying." 

Among Trickett's many roles is a seat on the party's new anti-Ukip strategy unit, which also features Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint and John Healey. He attributes the rise of the Farageists to "insecurity in an uncertain world, pressure on jobs, the decline in social mobility, a feeling that the future looks pretty bleak for a lot of people. The coalition are offering a future of cuts and more cuts with no end to it. It feels pretty bleak." 

"Our answer has got to be that this is a complex problem. It’s not unsolvable but it does mean radicalism and boldness, radicalism and boldness rooted in the centre of British politics and prepared to take on vested interests and the other obstacles to change," he adds. 

"It's not saying there’s a single answer to this, or a group of people who you can scapegoat and say 'They’re responsible'. But the truth is, most fair-minded people, when they sit down and you speak to them, they get it straight away." 

The key to reducing anxiety over immigration, the pre-eminent cause of Ukip's surge, is dramatic labour market reform, he argues. "There’s effectively a reserve army of cheap labour in the east of Europe who are being brought over, often by unscrupulous employers and agencies, to do work on the cheap and that can’t be right either for the people who are being shipped across or for the people who are already here.

"You often hear anecdotes or come across examples where the employers are using cheap migrant labour to undercut existing conditions - that can’t be right and Labour’s been clear that we’re going to stop all that."

Few weeks have been as taxing for Trickett's friend and ally Miliband as this one. Just six months before the election, the Labour leader has been forced to publicly dismiss threats to his position. Trickett's message to the rebels is unambiguous: don't feed the flames. 

"We’re the Labour Party and we are the labour movement and one of our founding principles is that an attack on anyone of us, by the forces of darkness, our political foes, is an attack on all of us. If one of us is attacked then all of us are attacked.

"The truth is that Ed Miliband has been subject to the most sustained level of attack and critique by the forces of reaction, our political foes, that I’ve ever seen and I was first elected 30 years ago this year. I’ve never seen anything like it.

"I think there’s an absolute duty on us, when anyone of us is under attack, particularly somebody we’ve elected to lead us, not to allow that and not to feed the flames.

"My own judgement, for what it’s worth, is that I will stand by anyone who is under attack. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a debate about policy options, we are a democratic movement, but that’s entirely different to feeding this frenzy of attack that has really been created by the right-wing in our society against our leader and that is completely inappropriate."

But as well fighting the fires fuelled by Miliband's foes, one senses that Trickett's greatest mission will be to keep the flame of socialism burning in the Labour leader's soul.  

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