Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour would cut much less than the Tories. Will it dare say so?

The party's plans would allow it to shield services from the worst. But for fear of appearing profligate it won't tell voters. 

If evidence was needed that the Conservatives fear the political consequences of the cuts to come, today's assault on the BBC's coverage of the Autumn Statement provided it. In his interview on the Today programme this morning, George Osborne denounced its reporting as "totally hyperbolic". The Chancellor, who never acts without political intent, was later supported by David Cameron whose spokesman said: "The prime minister and the chancellor do think those are hyperbolic descriptions, which don’t help us have what is important here, which is a clear and sensible and measured debate about the decisions that both are being taken and need to be taken in the future."

It was BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith's description of the OBR document as "the book of the doom" and his suggestion that the UK was heading "back to the land of Road to Wigan Pier" that provoked their ire. But while journalists are hardly unknown for hyperbole, Smith can be cleared of this charge. Ideological allies and foes of Osborne agree that the figures contained in the OBR blue book are truly remarkable.

By 2019-20, state spending is forecast to be just 35.2 per cent, the lowest level since the 1930s. To reach this point, without increasing taxes (in fact cutting them by £7.2bn), the Tories will need to cut departmental spending by £55bn in the next parliament: £20bn more than is this one. With most of Whitehall's low hanging fruit already having been plucked, the next government will find it impossible to cut without inflicting hitherto unimaginable damage on public services (which was exactly Smith's point). Local councils, schools, prisons and courts will all struggle to perform their basic duties (as many already are). 

Unsurprisingly, as I write in my column this week, the Tories fear that greater awareness of this could cost them the election due in five months' time. Osborne and other senior Tories partly blame their failure to win a majority on his "age of austerity" conference speech in 2009, which triggered a poll slump from which they never recovered. Labour was able to win back support as it warned of cuts to tax credits, reductions in child benefit, Sure Start closures and a rise in VAT (all denied by the Tories during the campaign only to be introduced immediately afterwards). In an attempt to avoid a repeat, the Tories are, quite logically, seeking to intimidate the BBC into silence. Fortunately, the corporation is putting up a robust defence, declaring that "We’re satisfied our coverage has been fair and balanced and we’ll continue to ask ministers the questions our audience want answered."

But the central political question is whether Labour can capitalise. By promising to introduce new tax rises (a 50p rate, a mansion tax, a bankers' bonus tax, a steeper bank levy), to leave room to borrow to invest and to only eliminate the current account deficit (rejecting the Tories' target of an absolute surplus), Ed Balls has avoided the need for cuts on the scale proposed by Osborne. The Resolution Foundation estimates that the post 2015-16 fiscal tightening required under his rules could be as low as £4bn. Unlike Osborne, ideologically fixated on achieving a surplus by 2018-19, Balls is playing a longer game, leaving open the possibility that the productive capacity of the economy will eventually recover (reducing the need for extreme austerity). 

Yet for fear of appearing profligate, Labour, as I note in my column, is terrified of saying as much. While vowing to reduce the deficit "in a fairer way" (through tax rises on the wealthy) and to promote the wage growth required to increase Treasury revenues, it won't say that its approach will help to shield public services from the worst. The result is that the Greens and the SNP are able to accuse Labour of signing up to Osbornite austerity ("they're all the same") and to pocket voters from the left. Many assume, as Dan Hodges did today, that Balls's plans mean he too would reduce spending to 1930s levels when the reverse is true. 

Interviewed on the Today programme this morning, the shadow chancellor rightly said: "I want to make sure we get the deficit down in a way which doesn’t destroy our national defences, undermine social care, hit the National Health Service". But it took far too many questions before he made this point. As Osborne's plans come under greater scrutiny from the BBC and others, the opposition will need to decide whether it is finally prepared to set out this dividing line. 

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