Iraq, Ed, David and the rest of us…
IRAQ – RIGHTS AND WRONGS
For all that he said in his first leaders speech, few can doubt that the most important moment for many on the centre-left was Ed Miliband’s apology on Iraq. In very careful language, reminiscent of Robin Cook, he made the legal and diplomatic case for the thinking opposition. Big applause, or not, depending on your point of view. This was the moment that Labour finally started to reach out to many of those inside and outside the movement who deserted us in droves after 2001, finding a home for their votes in The Greens, or in the Liberal Democrats.
It was a move, however, fraught with difficulty, encapsulated not only by the recorded reactions of elder brother David, but followed up by pieces on the national press from pro and anti-war voices, such as todays article in The Times by David Aaronovitch.
A someone who started out as instinctively against the Iraq adventure, yet came to believe that although very flawed, it was the right thing to do (albeit awfully executed), I think I can add something here. Since 2001, the spectrum of centre-left opinion has been divided rancourously and dangerously over Iraq. The two sides have expended much bile and energy on each other, rather than on supporting arab Democrats and Trades Unionists across the middle east. The terms of debate have become increasingly extreme, the result being that many opportunities to challenge the real “neocons”, “imperialists”, and “excusers of tyranny” have been ignored. Rational debate on Israel, Islamicism and attitudes to Human Rights has all but vanished.
There were honourable people on both sides of this clash, some, like Johan Hari and Nick Cohen, have changed sides over time, others, like David and Ed Miliband have not, but no matter, the point is that amongst ourselves we need recognise what this has meant to the hopes of the Left. My position would best be summed up by paraphrasing Nick Cohen in his book “Whats Left?” –
“OK, I didn’t initially support the War for a number of reasons – knee-jerk anti-americanism, a feeling of being rushed, the dodgy dossier and lack of a clear UN sanction, as well as suspicions as to the motives of GW Bush and his oil-rich friends. I marched, I shouted, and still we went to War, which in military terms was won quickly and with ease.
However, I could still see that deposing Ba’ath tyranny was a good thing for the people of Iraq, and that there was a chance to build a democratic, federal Iraq. The occupation, hamstrung by Washington’s obsession with doing things on the cheap and via private companies, has been a disaster, making mistakes detailed in books such as “State of Denial”. Nation building is still an honourable ideal, if done on an open, honest basis.
The trouble is that most of the hardcore anti-War campaigners have moved from opposing “Imperialism” to supporting an insurgency that is comprised of old Ba’athists, Clerical Fascists, and is in large part backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It repeatedly targets intellectuals, women, and the most progressive parts of Iraqi society. Whatever the obscene death toll in Iraq post-war, the largest number of those killed by violent means have been killed by these people. Faced with a choice between some freedom and none, I have to choose some freedom under occupation.”
Thanks Nick, anyway, there is a real danger today that attitudes towards Iraq will become the touchstone for a division within our party, between those who wanted David, and those who didn’t. This would be the worst outcome for all concerned. It would also be against the stated wishes of a certain D. Miliband MP…
AN INSURGENCY OF OUR OWN?
From the moment a couple of weeks ago that Ed emerged as a real contender for the Leadership, those closely linked to the New Labour “Project” swung into action. Tony Blair very wisely mentioned no candidate by name, followed by Lord Mandelson, John Rentoul, Alistair Campbell and David Aaronovitch were much more specific, as were the Murdoch Press. Attacks on Ed as being “Red”, a geek, too young, too leftwing, too odd etc became increasingly heavy. This is all part and parcel of debate in an election, and is fair enough, however, from Sunday onwards, “New Labour” voices in the Media intensified their attacks.
In a breathtaking reversal of Labour history, it was now the rightwing, having lost a Leadership election, that seems to want us to commit political Hara-Kiri, just so its favoured son can pick up the pieces after 2015. It is very tempting to describe these voices as latter-day Bennites of the Right, if so many of them hadn’t been Bennites back in the early 1980s that is. A more accurate description of this situation would be the distrust between the pacifists and non-pacifists in the Labour movement post 1918. It is often glossed over, but throughout the inter-war left, divisions arose over attitudes to The Great War, and not everyone was able to re-unite immediately post November 11th. Clem Attlee is an outstanding example of someone willing to work with both sides, while himself being a wounded Gallipoli veteran. It took (pacifist) McDonalds treachery, and Bevins harsh 1935 speech attacking George Lansbury before the wounds were healed in general terms. In the meantime, other internal battles – with the ILP, The Socialist League and perpetually with Morrison expended valuable time and effort better spent combatting unemployment, The National Government and the BUF. (Shades of today?)
Another parallel would be the destructive and futile decade long battle between the Gaitskellites and Bevanites for the soul of labour in the 1950s. Remember, we lost in 1951, although polling one million more votes than the Tories, and the fratricidal warfare that Attlee tried so hard to prevent led to us losing those votes and every election until 1964 – thirteen wasted years indeed.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY…
It seems that, having still not got used to losing grip on the levers of power, a tightly knit group of politically motivated individuals are hell-bent on sabotaging our chance to effectively renew, oppose, and defeat this Coalition.
It does not have to be like this – I doubt very much if electing Ed has ushered in a period when we embrace the 1983 manifesto like a long-cherished Bible. The vast majority of our new members (myself included) are eager to return to Government, with a new purpose, although we may be a little to the left of the “true” Blairite tendency. We want the power to save the NHS, create a fairer, more equal Britain, stop the atomisation of our education system along class lines, rebalance the economy and effectively regulate the city. We want to see fair voting system, and elect The House Of Lords amongst many other things.
Surely, we can have a rational debate about policy and outcomes, rather than harmful sniping that could become outright war if we don’t all grow up now. We owe it to our Party, to ourselves, and to our Nation.