Labour’s phoney war

Both the pro- and anti-war camps used Iraq as a platform for conference posturing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

One reporter says it is the ‘elephant in the conference chamber’, plonked there ‘even if delegates pretend it is not’. According to another, it is the ‘running sore’ of the Bournemouth proceedings, which some are trying to keep ‘under wraps’.

For a left-wing Labour MP, it is the ‘giant hole’ that the conference organisers want to ‘blank out’ of delegates’ minds. Whatever the metaphor, many agree that the war in Iraq is stalking the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth – the elephant with a running sore that party leaders have tried to push down a giant hole (1).

While there may have been no formal debate about Iraq – only the damp-squib discussion about ‘Britain and the world’ on Wednesday – in fact everyone is talking about it. Blair namechecked Iraq as a test of his and the party’s mettle, while his critics take every opportunity to mention the war. But far from there being a big clash of opinion over Iraq – which would apparently rock Bournemouth if it were aired openly – there is often little to distinguish between the positions of Blair and his critics. Rather, Iraq in Bournemouth is about something else, transformed by both sides into ammunition in a squalid internal spat.

According to the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley, Labour’s failure to hold a specific debate on Iraq means that Blair and co have avoided what could have been a useful ‘jolt’ (2). Instead, delegates were fobbed off with an inoffensive chat about Britain’s responsibility to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq and to do its bit in the war against terror. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that an open debate on Iraq would have been especially ‘jolting’. Judging from the comments made at the anodyne ‘Britain and the world’ debate and at anti-war fringe gatherings, the Labourite opposition to Blair’s war is more a question of tactics and timing than politics or principles.

Some of Blair’s critics took the opportunity of the ‘Britain and the world’ debate to raise concerns about Iraq. Jimmy Elsby, treasurer of the General Workers’ Union, boomed from the podium: ‘We’ve created a wasteland and called it peace! Now we need to rebuild Iraq!’ (3) For all his rhetorical posturing, Elsby’s position is not a million miles away from Tony Blair’s. In his conference address, Blair himself raised personal concerns about Iraq (he ‘suffered doubt’ after reading letters from angry families of British soldiers who had been killed), but said: ‘We who started the war must finish the peace.’ (4) Whatever their worries, both Elsby and Blair agree that Britain, having executed the war, should now stay and remake Iraq.

Other critics seemed more interested in giving a ‘jolt’ to President Bush rather than Blair. Jeremy Corbyn, left-wing Labour MP for Islington North, called on the government to break its links with the ‘ultra right-wing’ Bush administration (5). Far from demanding hands off Iraq, both Corbyn and Halifax Labour MP Alice Mahon called for ‘the internationalisation of the occupation’ (6), with a greater role for UN forces. Coincidentally, a few thousand miles away, the representatives of the ultra right-wing Bush administration in Iraq were raising exactly the same idea. On the same day, US officials circulated a new Iraq resolution claiming that their occupation was ‘temporary’ and calling for a ‘strengthened UN role in rebuilding Iraq’ (7).

For all the media reports about Iraq representing a dividing line between two opposing camps in Bournemouth, Wednesday’s international debate was tired and timid. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon and foreign secretary Jack Straw faced no heckling as they lamely justified Britain’s war effort in Iraq, while America’s stooge-in-Afghanistan Hamid Karzai got a standing ovation for saying he supported the war in Iraq because he wanted Iraqis to have ‘exactly the same thing’ as ‘liberated Afghans’ have got (chaos and confusion?). There was no big clash over Britain’s right to intervene in Iraq, or its continuing occupation. Instead, critics questioned whether all-out war was necessary – instead of Alice Mahon’s ‘other forms of pressure’ – and criticised the war for being too American.

They may have disliked aspects of the war – but anti-war Labourites implicitly accept Blair’s self-styled role on the international stage, and the right of the West to intervene in other states’ affairs and get rid of undesirable regimes. Indeed, cowardly conference organisers tapped into this fundamental point of agreement.

Keen to highlight the Labour government’s international record but desperate to avoid a slanging match over Iraq, the organisers granted delegates a debate on ‘Britain and the world’, where they could vote on a report that welcomed Britain’s ‘humanitarian and reconstruction budget of £154million’ for Iraq, because ‘there was a significant amount of work still to do in Baghdad’ (8). Unsurprisingly, Blair and co ‘comfortably won the vote’ (9) – highlighting the disparity between the Labour left’s bluster over Iraq and its support for Britain’s interventionist role in the third world.

If there is little disagreement within Labour ranks about Britain and the world, why has Iraq been dubbed the big issue of Bournemouth? Why are both Blairites and Blairphobes raising Iraq, everywhere from the conference floor to fringe meetings to press briefings? All the Iraq-talk in Bournemouth is about something other than the war and occupation, both of which are supported by the majority of conference delegates. Instead, the ‘giant hole’ of Iraq has come to symbolise Labour’s own internal squabbles, between a leadership that fears dissent and a membership that feels itself increasingly isolated from the party machine.

Blair and his loyal ministers cynically cite Iraq in an attempt to calm what they imagine to be a disgruntled membership. In the wake of recent media revelations about the government’s 45-minutes claim and the embarrassing evidence submitted to the Hutton Inquiry, Blair played the ‘tough personal decision’ card over Iraq in his conference speech on Tuesday. ‘Imagine you are PM, and you see this intelligence’, he said. ‘What do you do? Say “I’ve got this intelligence but I’ve a hunch it’s wrong?” Leave Saddam in place…?’ (10) According to Blair, Iraq was a test of his own personal strength and of the Labour Party’s mettle. In short, the war was less a political decision taken by Blair and his ministers, than a further example of straight kinda guys wanting to do the ‘right thing’. Blair and his ministers try to elevate Iraq above political interrogation, as a symbol of their well-meaning mission.

For the anti-war Labourites, Iraq has come to symbolise their sense of exclusion from the core of the party. When raising the war, many of Blair’s critics talk more about the problem of the party refusing to listen than about the devastation wreaked in Iraq. One union leader vented his frustration about the war against Blair personally: ‘He said he will listen, but he has got to show he will respect the party.’ (11) Alice Mahon called on Blair to ‘apologise’ for the war in Iraq (rather than resign over it?), claiming that New Labour was making decisions about war and its aftermath in a ‘goldfish bowl’ (12).

For many of the Labour left, such as it exists, Iraq has become a rallying cry against Blair and his small clique of loyal ministers and advisers, and for a return to the old party. It is the issue through which they express their disillusionment with Blair and their own feeling of isolation from his regime.

There was no political debate about Iraq in Bournemouth, nor very much disagreement. Instead, the war has become a platform for posturing among both the pro- and anti-Blair camps.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Iraq is still the elephant in the conference chamber, Martin Kettle Guardian, 29 September 2003; Instinct and the leader cult displace unwelcome truths, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, 2 October 2003

(2) Instinct and the leader cult displace unwelcome truths, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, 2 October 2003

(3) Rebels go 2-nil up…then lose, Sun, 2 October 2003

(4) Full text: Blair’s conference speech, Guardian, 30 September 2003

(5) Tears from Iraq envoy Clwyd amid heated war debate, Independent, 2 October 2003

(6) Tears and cheers as Hoon rallies defence against left, Guardian, 2 October 2003

(7) US commander: American troops averaging 3-6 deaths, per week, San Francisco Chronicle, 2 October 2003

(8) Tears and cheers as Hoon rallies defence against left, Guardian, 2 October 2003

(9) Tears and cheers as Hoon rallies defence against left, Guardian, 2 October 2003

(10) Full text: Blair’s conference speech, Guardian, 30 September 2003

(11) Respect from centre, but unions dismissive, Guardian, 1 October 2003

(12) Respect from centre, but unions dismissive, Guardian, 1 October 2003

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Topics Politics


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