Labour MP Mike Gapes got up in parliament last week to defend Theresa May over her bombing of Syria.
It’s not just Tory governments that go to war, he said. Labour also has a “long-standing and noble tradition” of bombing and invading countries in the name of “humanitarian intervention”.
Gapes listed some of his favourite examples—starting with Iraq, then Sierra Leone, and then Kosovo. And they’re just the ones that happened under Tony Blair.
He could have added India, Korea, Greece, Iran, Egypt, Malaya, Aden, Borneo, Ireland and Afghanistan. They’re all places where Labour has crushed colonial uprisings or helped the US to invade.
Is this a long-standing and noble tradition?
The right’s biggest attacks on Jeremy Corbyn have always come over the questions of war and “national security”.
The Labour right have mostly put up with left wing policies adopted under Corbyn’s leadership such as scrapping tuition fees, or nationalising rail. But when it comes to opposing wars, getting rid of nuclear missiles or supporting the Palestinians they’re in uproar.
For now, they can just about tolerate a party that calls itself anti-austerity. But they can’t handle one that says it’s anti-war.
Luke Akehurst, an organiser for the Labour right, summed it up neatly at a meeting in parliament last year.
If a Labour government was elected right wing MPs would have to mostly follow Corbyn. But they “have a moral duty to veto anything that might damage national security”.
When the right talk about national security, it’s a euphemism for Britain’s military strength and its ability to throw its weight around the globe.
This deference to national security has shaped Labour’s attitudes as far back as the First World War.
Before it started in 1914, Labour’s leaders were apparently anti-war. Many described themselves as pacifists or internationalists.
They included party leader Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie who is hailed as one of Labour’s founders.
When the war started the Labour Party dropped its anti-war manifesto and MacDonald resigned. Its new leader Arthur Henderson joined a coalition government’s war cabinet, becoming the first Labour cabinet minister.
What had happened? The war effort demanded that the whole of society rally behind Britain—or more accurately the British state.
That demand had a particularly strong pull on the Labour Party.
Labour claims to give a voice to the working class. But it aims to do this through the workings of the national state—that is, by getting elected to parliament and running government departments.
The problem is that the capitalist state is an instrument of class rule and has interests entirely separate from those of the working class.
Its health relies on a “strong” capitalist economy in competition with others around the world. Its interests have to be championed and defended against its rivals and anything else that threatens it.
If Labour wants to manage the state, it has to show it can do that. So when defending the British state’s “national interest” meant war in 1914, Labour’s leaders joined in.
As partners in the war government they helped to restrict and outlaw strikes—and lock up thousands of people who refused to fight, many of them Labour Party members.
Since then, Labour has supported almost every war. Every time its support has followed the same pattern.
When Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government went to war in the Falklands, left wing Labour leader Michael Foot, who called himself an “inveterate peacemonger” urged it on.
“The government must now prove by deeds—they will never be able to do it by words—that they are not responsible for the betrayal”.
Labour’s support for war in Iraq began under a Tory government too. As the Tories prepared to join the US in launching the first Gulf War Labour gave its “total support” and put pressure on the left to stay quiet.
Since the Second World War, Britain’s interests have depended on its close relationship with the US.
Protecting those interests has meant backing the US in every one of its invasions and imperial adventures—something Labour governments have never failed to do.
Tony Blair’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are surely two of the most disastrous examples of this.
But he wasn’t the first. The Labour government of Clement Attlee followed the US into the invasion of Korea in 1950. That war killed 600,000 Korean civilians, and saw the US drop tens of thousands of gallons of Napalm on Korean towns and cities.
At the bidding of the US, Attlee’s government increased spending on arms at the expense of the health service and reintroduced, then doubled the length of, conscription.
In 1937 Attlee had claimed, “There is no agreement on foreign policy between a Labour opposition and a capitalist government”. But by Labour’s election in 1945 Tory Anthony Eden—who would later go on to invade Egypt—saw no difference between Labour’s foreign policy and his own.
On the day Labour won the election, foreign secretary Ernest Bevin declared, “British foreign policy will not be altered in any way under the Labour government”.
People often like to remember how Labour prime minister Harold Wilson didn’t send British soldiers to join the US’s war in Vietnam. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to.
A tiny majority in parliament—and more importantly, mass and growing opposition to war outside parliament—made it impossible for Wilson to join the US. But he did everything else he could to support the war short of sending troops.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Wilson’s government also tried to crush a national liberation struggle in Aden, now Yemen, in which British soldiers used torture. Or that Wilson sent the British Army into northern Ireland.
In fact, Labour governments fought desperately to cling on to Britain’s colonies as its Empire disintegrated.
Attlee’s attempt to crush an uprising in Malaya involved aerial bombing, massacres in villages and mass displacement.
This is the history that Corbyn should break from. But the question of “national security” is so important to Labour politicians that Corbyn has come under more pressure over this than on anything else.
Corbyn just about managed to hold Labour together against May’s decision to join Syrian airstrikes. But he only managed it by corralling MPs around a demand for a vote in parliament—not against airstrikes in principle.
Had there been a parliamentary vote things could have turned out much worse for him, as the vote in 2015 showed. Corbyn’s opposition to war in Syria then led to his first major confrontation with the right—and his first significant defeat.
A rebellion by the right pushed Corbyn into allowing Labour MPs to vote as they pleased on whether to support the Tories. In the end, 66 of them did.
The fact that Labour still supports renewing Trident nuclear missiles despite Corbyn’s opposition is seen by the right as a victory. They are backed up by union leaders in Unite and GMB, who see the defence industry as a key source of jobs.
And if the pressure is hard now, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll face if he’s elected to lead a Labour government. Then he won’t just have to deal with his own MPs—the whole weight of the British state will try to crush him or force him into submission.
In 2015, a “senior serving general” reportedly told the Sunday Times newspaper that the army could stage a mutiny if Corbyn tried to scrap Trident or shrink the military.
But they may never have to go that far. Left wing journalist and economist Paul Mason understands the danger, and advocates compromise.
Last year he told a mass left wing meeting at Labour conference that a Corbyn government should avoid confrontation by postponing some of his plans. And he wants that compromise to begin now.
That means abandoning Corbyn’s opposition to Trident and the left’s
“knee-jerk” opposition to wars.
Mason’s strategy won’t leave Labour in a stronger position to return to those plans at a later date, as he seems to hope. It means following the same path as MacDonald, Henderson, Attlee and all other Labour governments that have come before.
The alternative is to defend and build anti-war resistance on the streets and in workplaces. It’s the only thing that can stand up to the right and the coercive might of the state.
How ordinary people won Indian independence
180 years since Britain's first general strike