Where are the Milibandites when Ed needs them?

The Labour leader has to look like the head of a movement when he takes on Unite, not a lone crusader.

Political leaders are never short of unhelpful advice in a crisis. Wherever Ed Miliband turns he is told that he must be bold, that his actions must be decisive, that this deadly row with Unite and Len McCluskey could also be an opportunity, containing the seeds of renewed leadership and status.

I wrote something to that effect at the end of last week. Shortly afterwards, the messages started to come in from people who want Ed to succeed – aides and loyal MPs – saying, in effect, “yes, fine, but what?” Good question. Difficult question. A moment to reflect on how hard it is being leader of the Labour party.

Miliband’s team know they need to take charge of the situation. They know this is becoming a defining moment in the Labour’s leader’s bid to become Britain’s next Prime Minister. They know the outcome they need is Miliband emerging stronger, more clearly defined in the public imagination as a man not to be underestimated – a man whose hidden steel is revealed. What isn’t clear is how they get to there from where they are now.

The first thing they need to settle is the parameters of the battlefield. Is Ed Miliband’s leadership going to be proven in his capacity to deal with the small matter of alleged vote-rigging in Falkirk or the larger question of Unite’s explicit political strategy to influence Labour by exerting its financial and organisational muscle in candidate selections? Len McCluskey denies there was anything wrong with the Falkirk process. That is true, I suppose, once you accept that the job of getting as many Unite-dependent MPs in parliament overrides any other consideration of best practice. According to a solid Leninist ends-justifies-the-means view of the situation, Falkirk is, as some Unite officials declared it, “exemplary”. However, in terms of expressing the kind of political organisation Labour wants to be and be seen to be, Falkirk is a monumental disaster. As one party insider put it to me the other day, “the choice now is between open and closed. It’s two different kinds of politics.”

So Miliband needs to be clear about whether he is trying to close an institutional loophole or change an institutional culture. His article in this morning’s Observer suggests it is the latter, which is entirely the right choice. He makes the connection between Falkirk and general public alienation from politics. He makes the point that the main challenge for the wider labour movement is making itself relevant to successive generations of workers who may not be members of trade unions. So far so good.

Miliband also says Labour should “mend, not end” its link with the unions. That too is a sensible position to take. It is the only realistic option. The Labour leader is walking along a narrow ridge. On one side is the danger of capitulation to the McCluskey agenda, accepting that union money has a veto over party reform. But on the other side is the danger of embracing a definition of leadership cooked up by Labour’s enemies in the Conservative party and the Conservative press. They will set tests of aggression towards the unions that he will never pass, while vandalising his support base in the attempt. How well he navigates this challenge will be decided by the definition he chooses for the word “mend.” You can mend some things by covering them in gaffa tape. Or you can take them apart and put them back together again. I sense in this situation a major institutional revision is in order. Ironically, one test of its effectiveness may turn out to be creating a system that, had it been in place in 2010, would have led to a different outcome in the Labour leadership contest. Miliband may not like that feature of the debate, but he would be unwise to ignore it completely.

The Labour leader thought Len McCluskey and Tom Watson were on his side. It is clear they were not. Miliband’s real friends are the people who now come out clearly and visibly to say without equivocation that the culture inside the party must change and that they believe Ed is the man with the requisite moral judgement and political capability to do it. At the moment, there are not too many of those people around. When David Cameron gets into trouble he can normally rely on some cabinet heavy-hitters and retired big beasts to intervene on his side. (When John Major is on the Today programme it is normally a sign that Downing Street is feeling besieged.)

Who are the equivalent people closing ranks around Ed Miliband? He has lost the protection of the old Brown machine and the old Blair brigade is watching from the wings mouthing, “we told you so”. The Labour leader has supporters in the party. There is no shortage of MPs who wish him well and want him to succeed. They all do, to the extent that they want a Labour government and Miliband is the only leader they’ve got. The vital missing component from the project has always been the sense of a movement larger than Ed himself – the aggregate charisma of a bunch of people who are easily and clearly defined by shared purpose and shared belief. Three years after the election it is still hard to identify a prominent and powerful phalanx of ardent “Milibandites”. If they are out there, they now need to make themselves heard. Their leader needs them.

Ed Miliband. Photo: 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