Labour's referendum u-turn is looking ever more likely

Many opposition MPs are persuaded by the case for making a virtue of necessity: resolve the issue and expose Tory divisions.

One consequence of Labour’s great frothy row over trade union influence is that yesterday’s parliamentary parade of Europhobia was bumped down the news agenda.

The vote on the first reading of a private member’s bill calling for an in/out referendum on EU membership was numerically if not politically rather dramatic. It was carried by 304 votes to nil. That means there will be another reading. So the charade gets to be played through another round. These bills become law extremely rarely and this one in particular proposes legislating for something that would happen after the next election, thereby binding a future parliament, which is constitutionally impossible.

The real point of the exercise is to give Conservative MPs the chance to boast to their constituents that they voted for a referendum in parliament and that Labour didn’t. This, it is hoped, will reinforce the message that the only way to get a say in whether Britain stays in the EU or not is to vote Tory. A vote for Ukip, say anxious Conservatives, is a de facto vote for Ed Miliband. Tory MPs report that this line is proving effective in their local associations. The threat of letting in Labour is the standard way to put a stop to harangues about Europe, gay marriage and all the other things that local Tory members harangue their MPs about.

So some Tories might be disappointed that their legislative stunt was poorly reported yesterday. (Although they won’t be sorry it was bumped in order to make way for lavish reporting of Labour disarray.) Besides, the spectacle of hundreds of Tories packing one side of the Commons chamber while the other one was entirely empty did reinforce the impression that this is a peculiar Tory obsession rather than a moment of great national significance. The mood around parliament in the run-up to the vote felt, in Tory quarters, like the anticipation of a stag party – lots of very hearty, cheery men all feeling immensely bullish and chummy in shared anti-Brussels spirit. If the Conservatives bottled that scent and released it to a wider audience I suspect it would not act as an electoral aphrodisiac.

Meanwhile, many Tories are wondering why Labour has not matched their referendum pledge. Just as many presume they will, and wonder when. (I’ve dealt with the question of whether they should and why they don’t want to here and here.) My sense of the mood in the opposition ranks is that the referendum u-turn has become inevitable. It is still possible to find Labour MPs who vigorously hate the idea, but fewer and fewer think it can be avoided. For that reason, the balance of power is shifting towards those who say the best thing to do is try to divide the Tories by calling for an in/out vote this side of a general election. Then, if it happens, Cameron – who ultimately wants to preserve EU membership – will campaign on the opposite side to many of his members, which could be problematic for party unity.

If Labour did go for that gambit they would certainly have support among hard core eurosceptic Tories. I spoke to one fairly moderate (but sometimes rebellious) Conservative recently who said quite casually that the Eurosceptics would “bank” yesterday’s vote and come back for more. Their plan too is to try to bring the referendum date forward.

Meanwhile, one idea floating around the Labour side is to aim for a referendum on the same day as the 2015 general election. The appeal here is that you get a higher turnout of what one advocate of the plan calls “normal, sensible people” which raises the chances of an “in” vote. And, of course, the Tories have to fight a general election campaign while splitting down the middle on a referendum campaign. Not that the decision is Labour’s to make, but as a plan it has the double virtues of clarity and strategic guile – commodities that have seemed in short supply on the opposition front benches of late. Ed Miliband might be tempted to go for it just because it would get people talking about divisions on the Tory side again instead of his own fracturing party.

Waiting for the leader to make the call. Source: Getty

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