David Cameron and Nick Clegg address a press conference at 10 Downing Street on July 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How the Lib Dems' attacks on the Tories help Labour

The two-against-one dynamic harms the Tories while exposing Clegg's party to the charge of hypocrisy. 

In the early months of the coalition, Labour figures frequently lamented the two-against-one dynamic that allowed the Tories and the Lib Dems to pin the blame for the financial crisis on them. The argument that it was overspending by the last government that "got us into this mess" gained credibility by being made by both parties. 

In recent days, it has felt as if this dynamic has been reversed. Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have sounded like opposition politicians as they have accused the Tories of planning to "inflict unnecessary pain" on the country (Alexander) and of "kidding" voters over the feasibility of their deficit reduction plan (Clegg). After the Autumn Statement, and just five months away from the election, the Lib Dems are seeking to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives in two respects: their willingness to impose tax rises on the wealthy to eliminate the remainder of the deficit, rather than cuts alone, and their preparedness to borrow for investment. Both of these stances are shared by Labour, which has also pledged to introduce a mansion tax on properties above £2m and has left room for deficit-funded capital spending. 

Although there are differences with Ed Miliband's party too - the Lib Dems would follow the Tories in eliminating the structural current deficit by 2017-18, rather than by "the end of the next parliament" - Clegg is focusing on distinguishing his party from the Conservatives. There is a specific psephological reason for this. Of the Lib Dems' 56 seats, the Conservatives are in second place in 37. To hold on to these constituencies, the party needs to focus on winning tactical votes from left-leaning Labour and Green supporters (as it has done in the past). By talking up the dangers of a future Tory government, it hopes to persuade progressive voters that the safest option is to vote Lib Dem.

There are two important ways in which this helps Labour. The first is that the party's positions gain greater credibility by being supported by the Lib Dems. It is harder for the Tories to dismiss Labour's economic stances as nonsense when they are endorsed by the people they have been in government with for more than four years. When the Conservatives refuse to introduce any further tax rises on the wealthy and reject calls to borrow to invest in housing, they look like the odd ones out. Moderate Tory MPs have long complained that the Lib Dems have "retoxified" their brand by taking credit for the "nice" things the government has done and blaming them for the "nasty" things. 

The second is that the Lib Dems' attacks on their coalition partners expose them to the charge of hypocrisy and inconsistency (one swiftly made by George Osborne yesterday). When Clegg's party complains about the "unncessary pain" planned by the Conservatives, Labour will remind voters that they supported the bedroom tax, the tripling of tuition fees and the top-down reorganisation of the NHS. If the Tories are as nasty as the Lib Dems suggest, why vote for the people who have sat in cabinet with them since 2010?

It is this argument that troubles Lib Dems such as Jeremy Browne, who argue that Clegg has made a dangerous error by distancing the Lib Dems from the government (for instance through his absence at last week's Autumn Statement). Rather than attacking the Tories, they argue that the party should devote more time to claiming credit for the coalition's achievements. Browne told the Huffington Post that the "biggest danger for the Lib Dems is having one foot in government, and one foot out" and warned against moving from "being a party of protest to a party of protest-in-government." It is notable that, far from recovering in the polls, the Lib Dems have lost further support since embarking on "aggressive differentiation" from the Tories. Based on the results so far, Labour should hope that it long continues. 

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