Labour unease at U.S. war plan

Print edition : February 14, 2003

Prime Minister Tony Blair. - ADAM BUTLER/AP/POOL

There is mounting opposition within the Labour Party, in the United Kingdom and within Europe to Prime Minister Tony Blair's outright support to the United States' intended war against Iraq.

TENSION continued to grow within the Labour Party in the United Kingdom as January 27, the date for the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq to report back to the U.N., approached. Prime Minister Tony Blair used two occasions in the third week of January to reiterate his hawkish views. First, at the rescheduled Parliamentary Question Time - now at midday to catch the British Broadcasting Corporation's 1o'clock radio news - Blair continued to insist that Britain's own security was under direct threat from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's arsenal. This claim was thrown into some relief a few days later when a policeman, who was investigating the activities of an errant refugee, was stabbed to death in Manchester. It has subsequently been alleged that the assailant has links with Al Qaeda.

Further, a statement from Scotland Yard warned of Al Qaeda cells in the U.K. and these events have given rise to the charge that the real threat comes from such sources and not from any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Blair himself is conscious that no real link between Iraq and terrorism in the West has been proven and latterly has shifted his own emphasis to arguing that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq could forestall any such future link-up. Large sections of Blair's own party remain unconvinced by such reasoning.

The other occasion for Blair to spell out his case was at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He pointedly refused to be drawn on the critical issue of whether he would support unilateral action by the United States. The biggest open split in the Parliamentary Labour Party at the moment though hinges on the question of U.N. support. Knowledgeable observers think that Blair would certainly have a majority of Labour lawmakers on his side if the U.N.-backed action against Iraq is on the basis of a conclusively incriminating report from the U.N. weapons inspectors. However, there is a genuine apprehension that the U.S. has already set a deadline for military action and there is a strong misgiving in the Labour Party that Blair has already given a hostage to fortune with his immediate and emotional assurance to "stand shoulder-to-shoulder" with the U.S. on his first meeting with President George W. Bush after 9/11.

This is a view given voice to by the "Father of the House" (a title given to the longest serving M.P.) Tam Dalyell, who said dolefully that Blair had already made up his mind to support a U.S. attack on Iraq, with or without U.N. approval.

Rumours of splits within the higher echelons of the Labour Party were quietened when Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown made an impromptu comment that Saddam should be "punished". Although Brown later moderated his language, his remark was a riposte to those who might have hoped that Brown's previous reticence indicated policy doubts about the government's line on Iraq. So far the only senior figure to express reservations has been Development Secretary Claire Short. Short resigned from the Labour Front Bench in 1991 in order to express her disquiet over the Kuwait war, and once again warned that there should be "no rush to war". However, beyond Westminster there is considerable opposition to a war. The weekend of January 18 and 19 saw large demonstrations in several provincial cities and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) arranged a mass lobby of Parliament. The CND still carries some moral weight and remains a perennial rallying point for anti-war sentiment in the U.K. The next meeting of the national executive of the Labour Party will see the tabling of a motion demanding that the government should "seek a diplomatic and political solution to the situation in Iraq". That meeting will crucially take place on the day after the U.N. weapons inspectors submit their report.

A newspaper survey of local chairs of Labour Party branches revealed that a large majority of them were against military action without U.N. approval, repeating the pattern in Westminster, and there is much anecdotal evidence from around the country of large-scale resignations from the party in protest against the position already taken by the leadership. A respected academic, Professor Patrick Seyd, who has been a long-standing chronicler and analyst of the Labour Party's lay membership, has predicted that as many as 70 per cent of members could leave if the U.K.'s action eventually appears to be dictated by the U.S.

There are two potential beneficiaries of any Labour defections. The Green Party, which now has seats in the European Parliament and in the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies under the system of Proportional Representation elections, has made claims of approaches being made by disaffected Labour members, as has the Socialist Alliance. Moreover, both nationalist parties, Welsh and Scottish, oppose a war on Iraq. The price of the "special relationship" with the U.S. is causing some disruption in Blair's alliances with Europe, whose leaders are noticeably less hawkish than he is and Blair realistically appreciates that his closeness to Bush jeopardises his own stated aim to put "Britain at the heart of Europe". However, it will very soon become clear whether Blair's solidarity with the Bush White House is at the price of unity in his own party.

Michael Hindley was Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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