Britain: Can Corbyn end Labour's slavish support for war?

September 27, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo:

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has raised hopes for people who oppose Britain's wars. More than in any other area, it will take a mighty effort to make those hopes real.

There is no other area in which national politics so ignores the population at large. On the economy, health, education and so on, there is at least debate.

But on war, security, intelligence — grouped under the significantly misleading heading of “defence” — there is a suffocating consensus that places the actions of the state beyond serious challenge.

The Labour Party is firmly embedded in the consensus. In seeking power, it feels a special need to prove its reliability in this area. For the last 70 years, since World War II, it has maintained a steady subservience to the military and security requirements of the United States that exceeds even that of the Conservatives, who have less to prove.

Corbyn’s anti-war stance evidently appeals to millions of people. He won six in every ten Labour votes amid a clamour of warnings from the leaderships of all national parties that he is a walking threat to national security, a traitor set on surrendering Britain to Middle Eastern — or even Irish — terrorists.

Clearly, people were not convinced. People can see, for instance, from the wave of war refugees fleeing across Europe, that intensifying hostilities in the Middle East can only lead to more.

Corbyn's stance runs counter to Labour's record. Many on the left revere the memory of Clement Attlee's 1945-51 Labour government, which established the welfare state, with free healthcare and education for all.

But the Attlee government also joined the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union alongside the US, jointly founding NATO and building Britain’s first nuclear weapons in secret, without consulting parliament.

The anti-communism of this Cold War hysteria was intense. Left-wingers in public service, especially education, were required to prove their loyalty and lost their jobs if they could not.

It was the same as the so-called “Prevent” agenda, under which Muslims are required to prove their allegiance to the consensus values of today. But it was imposed by what is often hailed as the most progressive Labour government of all time.

There was some resistance from the left, which in 1960 succeeded in winning the party conference to the cause of nuclear disarmament. Attlee’s successor Hugh Gaitskell went ballistic, declaring that he would ignore the democratic decision and reverse the policy.

His outrageous 1961 speech to this effect is often held up by establishment Labourites as a triumph of party conference oratory.

Similar veneration is accorded to a speech by the vaunted left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot in 1982. A special session of parliament was convened to give him the chance to pledge the obedience of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher despatched her fleet to the Falklands.

It was not enough. The jingoism generated around that war finished off Foot’s leadership as Labour crashed to election defeat a year later. He was succeeded by one-time Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament firebrand Neil Kinnock, who gave even more fulsome backing to the Tories when they joined the first US-led invasion of Iraq in 1991.

In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair launched his own war in the Balkans. This war had another telling parallel with today’s world: the bombing of Kosovo caused a huge wave of refugees. Blair used it for propaganda purposes but ignored their plight — leaving hundreds of thousands without aid, lacking food or shelter.

The propaganda cynically presented this outrage as a “humanitarian intervention”, and the same spurious justification was employed for the assault on Libya in 2011. Like Kosovo, this was a European-led enterprise, promoted by Britain, France and Italy — again faithfully supported by Labour.

Such is the party’s war record — without even mentioning Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, Labour emphatically backs Trident, the expansion of NATO and its 2% minimum for spending on “defence”.
This is what Corbyn and his supporters are taking on, in the deepest challenge of all to the core of the Labour establishment.

Winning the leadership is obviously not enough. The left thought it was winning when it won the CND vote, and when Michael Foot became leader; even, some deluded souls, when Gordon Brown took over from Blair.

But there was never enough support within the party to stop the right wing re-establishing control.

Since September 12, when Corbyn was announced Labour's new leader, 50,000 people have joined the Labour Party, adding to the hundreds of thousands who joined since the election was announced in May. This should be a solid foundation on which to take a stand.

If people are joining up, then they have got to get active. They are embarking on a serious enterprise. Corbyn may not be able to get rid of the warmongers in the Labour Party, but with enough help from the grassroots, he might be able to stop them running it.

[Abridged from]

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