A movement of resistance

Published : Oct 25, 2002 00:00 IST

THE British Labour Party conference, once a vast, sprawling, chaotic affair to which local party units sent delegates to debate with a real chance of influencing party policy, has nowadays been reduced, with deliberate and savage intent by the party managers, to an annual spectacular to celebrate the Leader and his trusted team, much in the mode of an American Presidential election convention. The American connection was made even clearer this year with the appearance of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as a special guest speaker. The former President was a somewhat incongruous figure at the garish resort of Blackpool on the northwestern coast of England, a seaside town synonymous with cheap entertainment, ribald humour and dreadful wet weather. Indeed, in recent years there has been much muttering by Prime Minister Tony Blair's image conscious entourage of moving Blackpool off the list of venues for the annual Labour gathering.

Clinton's role was to raise support for his personal friend Tony Blair, who finds himself increasingly beleaguered nationally and internationally. Clinton's carefully calibrated speech criticised President George Bush, something Blair feels he himself cannot do publicly without endangering the "special relationship" between the United States of America and the United Kingdom. However, Clinton called for support for eventual unilateral action by the U.S.

Blair had previously sought to defuse the widespread scepticism that Saddam Hussein poses a clear and immediate threat by publishing a "dossier" of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in time for a specially convened session of Parliament. The recall of Parliament was something Blair was reluctant to do and critics remarked on his taking as many weeks to recall the Mother of Parliaments to debate Iraq as he had taken in terms of days to recall MPs to pay tribute on the death of the Queen Mother.

The "dossier" revealed, according to experts, nothing new and the revelation that the farthest range of Iraqi missiles would be the British bases in Cyprus scarcely posted a convincing argument that Iraq was an actual danger to Britain. Indeed, since the publication of the dossier, the number of people supporting military action has dropped by four percentage points, from 37 per cent to 33 per cent, according to the liberal daily The Guardian.

The recalled Parliament was blocked from having an actual vote on any substantive issue. The Speaker ruled that as the government had recalled the House for the one single purpose, that is to hear its view, the only vote could be a technicality of whether the House should adjourn or not. Despite this magnificent piece of flummery, some 56 Labour MPs and six others, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and Welsh Nationalists, voted "nay".

THIS resistance was soon replicated in extra-parliamentary form when during the following weekend a massive "No War" march snaked through central London drawing at least 150,000 people according to the police and 400,000 according to the organisers of the event. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the rally was the large number of young British Muslims participating in some contrast to their elder generations who have been hesitant over the years to make any public display of their political sympathies.

When the Labour Party conference began the day after, there was a deep and sombre impression among delegates that Blair's immediate response to September 11 a pledge to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the U.S., will translate into British forces joining in what could still be a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq.

The national executive committee of the party was minded to move a motion opening the way for such a possibility. However, fearing a possible defeat, the leadership withdrew that motion in favour of one more ambiguously worded supporting military action "within the context of U.N. authority". This motion was carried, but an additional resolution clearly rejecting all military action garnered 40 per cent of the conference vote. Moreover, as the debates developed in the hall, anger grew when it became clear that the conference chair was calling a long, unbroken series of speakers who supported Blair's position.

Outside the conference hall, among the general public, there is a clear majority in all polls expressing a rejection of Britain supporting any unilateral action by the U.S., but also clear support for U.N. action to disarm Saddam Hussein. Getting a new, tougher resolution from the U.N. Security Council that in effect endorses military intervention by the U.S. is now crucial to Blair's game plan.

The press speculation about potential splits in the Labour government have focussed on the Minister for International Development, Claire Short, who resigned from the then Shadow Cabinet in disagreement with the leadership's support for the 1991 Gulf war. Short is now much regarded in the international community and is more cautious about jeopardising her position. However, she has been the only Cabinet member so far to insist, at least in public, on a "U.N.- only solution".

In his own speech to the conference, Blair once again claimed that the U.K. could both uphold the "special relationship" with the U.S. and yet still play a leadership role in Europe. The latter claim is somewhat threadbare after Labour's sister party in Germany, the Social Democrats, was re-elected on an anti-war platform projected by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and in the light of French President Jacques Chirac's continued insistence on slowing down within the U.N. the march to war.

The old adage that you should not be in politics unless you can ride two horses at once may be beyond even Tony Blair's consummate presentational skills.

Michael Hindley is a former Labour Party member of the European Parliament.

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