Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2795

Labour and war—a history of treachery

The disgraceful retreat of the Labour left over Ukraine has dealt a blow to the movement. But this type of cowardice isn’t new, explains Nick Clark
Issue 2795
Labour MP John McDonnell

MP John McDonnell have abandoned the left and anti-imperialist policies (Picture: Flickr/ Jeremy Corbyn)

What word best sums up the utter capitulation of left wing Labour MPs over the past few weeks?

Figures such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott—seen by many as figureheads of the left—have led only a retreat. In the face of an assault on the Stop the War Coalition they collapsed at the first sign of confrontation, leaving their supporters in the lurch.

After 11 Labour MPs ­withdrew their signatures from a Stop the War ­statement, Abbott said they were all “happy to take our names off.” Every Labour MP, she claims, supports the West’s military alliance Nato and it shouldn’t be criticised. If that weren’t enough, McDonnell pulled out of a Stop the War rally amid rumours that he could be suspended from the Labour Party if he spoke. McDonnell said he didn’t want to “distract” from support for Ukraine.

In other words, if there’s a choice between staying in Labour or supporting Stop the War, Labour members should pick the party over the movement. That could affect a lot of Labour Party members.

Shortly before Keir Starmer became Labour leader in 2020, polling company YouGov found that Stop the War was the organisation most liked by Labour members.

That led Andrew Murray—Stop the War chair and former aide to Jeremy Corbyn—to write that Labour’s new leader would “struggle to strike out in a different direction” over anti-imperialism. “Pressure to cut the strings tying British diplomacy to Washington’s apron will remain potent within the party,” he wrote. “This shift in sentiment—a direct negation of Blair’s foreign policy—may prove to be a significant part of Corbyn’s legacy.”

In reality, trashing anti-imperialist politics has been a central plank of Starmer’s mission to prove that Labour has buried the Jeremy Corbyn era. And—despite members’ support for Stop the War—the left MPs have offered next to no resistance. The Labour right is at its most aggressive when it comes to support for war, weapons and Nato. As a result it’s often where the Labour left is weakest.

When the left’s commitment to staying in the party at all costs meets the right’s commitment to “national security,” it’s ended in some sorry defeats. And at the root of both is Labour’s commitment to ­managing the British state. For left and right in Labour, parliament is central. But if you want to use the state to deliver reforms then you have to manage it on its terms.

Its health relies on a “strong” capitalist economy in competition with others around the world. The state and national ­corporations have to be championed and defended against rivals and anything that ­threatens them. If Labour wants to manage the state, it has to show it can do that. That’s why some of the most evangelical devotees to the military, Nato and nuclear weapons come from among their ranks.

There are always dissenting voices from a handful of left wing Labour MPs. But time and again the centrality of parliament, elections and staying in Labour forces them to fall into line. The search for a “socialist Labour government” means staying in always comes first. That’s how McDonnell can justify ditching Stop the War “in the wider context of securing a socialist Labour government.”

Some of the right’s biggest assaults on Corbyn—and some of his landmark defeats—were over war and anti-imperialism. The first big rebellion by Labour MPs came just weeks after he was elected leader over whether to support the Tory government’s plan to bomb Syria. MPs demanded Corbyn allow them to vote in favour.

His then shadow foreign ­secretary Hilary Benn even insisted on embarrassing Corbyn with a speech in ­parliament in favour of bombing.  Corbyn allowed it all in the name of party unity.

Other defeats would follow throughout Corbyn’s time as leader—most significantly over the right to describe the creation of Israel, through ethnic cleansing, as racist. And in 2016 Corbyn faced a new attack from the Labour right after a Russian former spy was poisoned in the city of Salisbury. Much of the Labour right wanted Corbyn to rally behind the Tory government and join calls to strengthen the security services and ratchet up threats against Russia. Corbyn refused.

But his shadow defence ­secretary Nia Griffiths—a keen supporter of Nato and nuclear weapons—defied him and insisted publicly that Labour backed the government. Before Corbyn could discipline her, McDonnell joined in, ­telling a BBC interview, “I agree ­completely with the prime minister.”

It was a deliberate act of ­defiance and a calculated move to ditch anti-imperialist politics in favour of unity with the right and electoral success.

In an insider’s account, writer Owen Jones praises McDonnell’s “tactical approach—defending the red lines that mattered, not needlessly picking damaging fights which did not”. There’s precedent for this throughout Labour’s history.

Few Labour left MPs were prepared to challenge their leaders’ grovelling over the  Tories’ wars in the Falklands in 1982 or Iraq in 1991.

As the Tories prepared to join the US’s 1991 invasion, Labour MPs demanded the leader Neil Kinnock set out an independent position. “Some say that I should, as they put it, ‘distance’ myself from the government,” he replied. “I will not distance myself.” But after the war began, dissent among Labour MPs melted away. Five Labour MPs resigned as shadow ministers—many more stayed silent.

A meeting of Labour MPs voted five to one in favour of continuing the war instead of backing a ceasefire. The MP Bernie Grant blamed the left’s weakness on “Labour MPs who lurked in supper clubs and bars mumbling their disagreement, afraid of damaging their political careers.” 

And in 1982 Labour leader Michael Foot showed his support for Margaret Thatcher’s war in the Falklands with a ­jingoistic speech in parliament. Tony Benn—who had already agreed to end his challenges to Labour’s leadership—distanced himself slightly from Foot. But, like Abbott today, he insisted there was “unanimity” among all MPs on ­supporting the government against Argentina and “on the right of self defence against aggression.”

However, there was one time when a substantial number of Labour MPs—not all of them from the left—did oppose a war. That was in 2003 when Tony Blair’s Labour government joined the US’s invasion of Iraq. Some 138 Labour MPs backed a motion seeking to delay the decisions, and 84 voted directly against the war.

But this was a reflection of the huge anti-war ­movement that had seen two million people demonstrate in London a month before. And some who opposed  war before it began, ditched their opposition once it started.

Robin Cook, who resigned from Blair’s cabinet before the war, later said soldiers shouldn’t be brought home. “Having started this war, it’s important to win it,” he said. Another critic of the invasion was Mo Mowlam. In the ­previously anti-war Daily Mirror newspaper she called for “more bombing and taking the war to the enemy, even if that means the dreadful level of casualties that go with it.”

Labour’s left MPs speak out only when pressure mounts from a mass ­movement. When it gets tough, they skulk away again. Those MPs who stuck with the anti-war movement survived in Blair’s Labour only because he knew the left inside the party had already been beaten years before.

Starmer is still desperate to crush the left and prove Labour’s devotion to Nato. In the face of this onslaught Labour’s left MPs have proved utterly useless. Their retreat from Stop the War has had consequences beyond the Labour Party. 

It’s helped the right to create an atmosphere where any criticism of Nato is unacceptable, let alone any suggestion that it’s responsible for the war in Ukraine. More broadly, it risks leaving activists coming under the cosh for criticising Nato, feeling ­isolated and abandoned.

So McDonnell might be right that Labour members face a choice between support for Stop the War and keeping their Labour membership. But his advice to stay in Labour whatever the costs is no longer just misguided. It risks undermining the anti-war movement at the moment it’s needed most.

The word for that is treachery.

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