What happened to the anti-war Left?
This once reliably vocal faction has gone quiet
As Labour prepares for government, Keir Starmer has cracked down on dissidents and fringe groups within the party. More insidious, perhaps, is the decline of what was once a reliable and vocal faction: the anti-war Left. At the weekend Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South and stalwart of the Labour Left, questioned the Ministry of Defence over its failure to provide Ukraine with used Apache helicopters in the country’s “hour of need”. This came days after John McDonnell, shadow chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, argued in a piece for Labour Hub that “a refusal to provide the weapons the Ukrainians need” would mean that “the chances of the Russian invasion succeeding are significantly increased”.
From Vietnam to Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan to Iraq, the anti-war Left could always be relied upon to make its voice heard. In doing so, it rarely, if ever, achieved its objectives. But its efforts did at least have the effect of letting an establishment set on war know that more than one viewpoint existed, and that hawkish politicians and military chiefs would be obliged to answer for their decisions.
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A few evenings ago, I dipped into the late Tony Benn’s published diaries and read about his activities during the Falklands War. Benn — by then a backbench Opposition MP and a member of the Labour Party’s ruling executive — recounts the jingoistic mood that had swept much of Britain in the aftermath of the Argentinian invasion. But the entries also demonstrate how, during those fraught weeks, an appreciable body of anti-war opinion existed within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party and across the wider labour movement. Three frontbenchers were sacked for opposing the despatch of a task force to recapture the islands, and a number of trade unions also came out against the war.
British sovereign territory itself had been invaded. Yet here were prominent voices and organisations from the Left boldly making the case for jaw-jaw over war-war. None of which is to say these peaceniks were right. But it does serve to demonstrate that, even in the most forbidding circumstances, significant sections of the Left have historically been unafraid to take a stand against military conflict.
This brings us to their near-absence over Ukraine. Few in number are those with any clout on the Left who have been willing to break with the orthodoxy served up by the mainstream parties and most pundits. Sure, the Stop the War Coalition is doing its usual thing. But that group is unlikely to ever again achieve the widespread recognition and support it secured in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when it was still a new and exciting movement — and when, frankly, few understood, as many do now, the extent to which it was dominated by unrepresentative elements from the far-Left.
Now, even among those who see moral worth in arming the Ukrainians in their resistance to Putin’s aggression, hardly any are turning their attention simultaneously to the urgent questions of how to establish the conditions for a ceasefire or lay the foundations for some kind of peaceful and lasting settlement. It’s almost as though they fear the screams of “Treachery!” were they to do so.
When 11 Labour MPs did pluck up the courage to put their names to an anti-war statement last year, they capitulated before the ink was dry on their signatures after being threatened with the removal of the whip by the party leadership.
What explains this shift? An absence of moral fibre? A lack of intellectual confidence or understanding of the conflict? The neutering of the Left within Labour’s ranks? Regardless, voices of conscience are desperately needed now, as the slaughter in Ukraine shows no sign of ending and the world’s great powers ramp up the bellicosity and belligerence.
During and after the Falklands campaign, Tam Dalyell, an anti-war Labour MP of some distinction, famously exposed the Thatcher government for its decision to sink an enemy battlecruiser, the General Belgrano, when it was sailing outside of the British-declared exclusion zone — an act which resulted in the loss of over 300 Argentinian lives. Dalyell’s intervention was made out of principle and in defiance of the national mood at the time. It’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary Opposition MP doing something similarly courageous now. We are all the poorer for it.
They turned into a bunch of neoliberal, globalists who repeat mantras about the “international rules-based order” while simultaneously, and without irony, worshiping at the shrine of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
It is indeed perplexing why/how the same people who planted “War is not the Answer!” flags in their front yards over the last 20 years are now advocating for the massive transfer of armaments to Ukraine, which can very likely lead to a WWIII.
There must be a reason for this insane escalation over a historically corrupt former territory of the USSR.
Presumably because, if Russia does roll over Ukraine, our NATO allies will be next in the firing line?
Whilst I disagree with the “anti war” position on Ukraine, I think that the author is correct that it is desirable that the debate is made in public and that MPs who strongly take this position should put their case in the House of Commons as they have always done in the past.
It is statistically certain that some MPs must oppose support for Ukraine.
One of the side effects of not doing so is that this allows those who are against supporting Ukraine to claim that they are not represented and their views are not being heard in public. Which has some justification.
And I think most people actually respect politicians who are prepared to take a principled and unpopular stance (provided it is not complete nonsense). It probably doesn’t serve the standing of politicians well if they always allow their views to be censored. Or democracy in general.
This has been the trend since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thinking back to that invasion, there was a significant split of opinion across politics, the media and the public. There was a very obvious public debate on that subject.
Following this war, particularly when its consequences became clear, there was a significant refrain from the media about “doing better in future.” Yet all major events since this date have been met with far less open debate and scrutiny of the state position than that war ever was. Libya, the bank bailout, the Douma attack, Covid and now Ukraine seem to have a specific state position that may not be contested.
It is my belief that the phrase “do better,” was more in reference to allowing an open debate or scrutiny of state policy to occur again. Instead, we get ample coverage of Boris’ garden parties and occasionally Starmer’s curry night.
The anti-war Left all became postmodernists and decided that war was a social construction.
This will work right up until the moment that someone starts dropping smartbombs on Leftists’ houses, when they will discover the truth of an old Philip K. D*ck quote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.”
(BTW: I had to put the asterisk in there because Unherd’s automated comment filterer won’t allow the man’s actual name.)
The Left is the establishment now. Forgive me for thinking western politicians are using this war as a smoke screen to cover the damage from their Net Zero policy. Like with the Kurds who the US armed to fight ISIS, Ukraine will be dumped when it doesn’t suit the Americans anymore.
Forgive me for thinking western politicians are using this war as a smoke screen to cover the damage from their Net Zero policy.
How you reached that theory is utterly baffling.
To be fair, the war in Ukraine has frequently been given all the blame for higher inflation, and, in particular, higher energy costs, which had more complex causes, including governments’ energy policies, and Quantitative Easing during lockdown.
Apologies for pretty much saying what you said.
Read before posting shall be my motto!
To give him some credit, the war has, fortuitiosly, provided some cover for the damage caused by Net Zero.
I only wish they were as Machiavellian as you claim.
You’ll find that foreign policy is a lot messier–and far more unintended–than you imagine.
Well in Germany Heinrich Bücker, has been sentenced to prison for criticising Germanys war policy, story here:
Mentioned here by highly respected former CIA analyst Ray Mcgovern speaking at the UN a few days ago, talks about his disappointment at the arms deals not being renewed, appeals for peace:
Also if anyone is following the nord stream business jeffery sachs spoke before him, both speeches, full session here:
Worth a watch, I wasn’t that impressed with our representative from the UK I have to say.
NO NATO WAR.
Nordstream was simply Putin’s information op to frighten the West.
He could still send all the gas he wanted via Yamal and Druzhba.
Sachs has never moved on past Vietnam. He sees every subsequent conflict in terms of that war.
Sorry Mr logan, but I will take Seymour hersh, jeffrey sachs and Ray mcgoverns word for it over yours.
And so it comes out that successive British Governments turned Manchester into the world centre of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, to the point of dispatching the Royal Navy as its ferry service. That Group went on to bomb Manchester Arena.
We have been telling you this for years. We were right all along about Libya, just as we were right about Kosovo, about Sierra Leone (where the best that can be said is that British military intervention did no good), about Afghanistan, about Iraq, and about Syria. We shall be proved right about Ukraine, because why would we be wrong this once? Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer.
Funny how Serbia is about to recognize Kosovo then.
And the point about Syria was that the West didn’t intervene after a “red line” was crossed. That certainly set the stage for Putin’s confidence that no one would oppose him in Ukraine.
Sometimes wars are necessary (Iraq 1991, Bosnia, Kosovo). Sometimes they’re not (Iraq 2002). Embracing or condemning them a priori makes little sense.
But I suppose broken clocks can be right…
But only twice a day.
The anti-war left in the US has been replaced by the anti-war right led by Ron and Rand Paul and followed by Donald Trump who has been vocally anti-war. The left can only focus on the minutiae of identity these days and can only blather on about how war ‘disproportionately’ affects some ‘marginalized’ group.
Each war is different, though the failures in diplomacy have some similarities. Supporting Ukraine is compatible with regretting Biden giving Putin the green light in saying the US would not intervene, regretting Biden’s recent mocking of Putin that makes diplomacy more difficult, regretting sanctimonious sanctions that could only backfire and regretting the lack of effort to implement the Minsk Agreement. I am not sure the fringes of the political parties can be of any help when they are so dogmatic.
Sad that, 40 years on, there are still some people who have failed to understand the military purpose and legal status of the Falklands Exclusion Zone.
Hint: it wasn’t created to provide Argentinian forces with a safe haven outside it.
The left in the U.S. is unrecognizable. They are just told what to believe in and they get behind it blindly. If you asked a leftist why we are supporting Ukraine and what is the end game they would go on mute or auto-reply “to defend democracy.” They have no history regarding NATO, The Minsk Agreement, and Russia/Ukrainian history. What about peace talks or negotiations? Too much money to be made. Same thing with the whole CovidCon®-suddenly the government is benevolent, censorship is cool and Big Pharma is a hero. Pfizer wanted in on the cash cow, and now we have an even bigger medical-industrial complex.
The cowardice of the left, especially in the Labour Party, is disgusting. here in Ireland, the leader of the Labour party has issued a statement opposing peace talks. It is shameful.
It’s because wanting to prevent the Ukrainians from defending themselves is too viscerally disgusting even for the chutzpah of the communist-fascists.
We have the Labour government to thank when they voted against supporting the USA’s invasion of Vietnam in 1964 and the coalition (Lib/Lab pact) voted against going into Syria in 2013 but as soon as the Tories got a majority in the 2016 General Election, we were at war,. And once we joined the Americans, Russia joined Syria.
It is a sorry state of affairs nowadays when there is nothing to choose between the two main parties, neither in political policies nor the morality of preserving God-given life.
At least the Stop the West Coalition are still in business, ho hum…
In the US the security state/war machine has given the left the power to run wild in the cultural sphere. That, I think is the price for the support of the likes of Sanders and Ocazio-Cortez.
“As labour prepares for government…”. Surely hubris is also a position held across the political spectrum and so includes labour?
The anti war position has swapped the foreign-political for the domestic-cultural.
They are worried about being deselected.
Non-generals not fighting the last war…
Putin is a National Populist.
He is President Trump’s best buddy. They met face to face, and President Trump says Putin is a genius.
Russian power (over computer technology developed by the West and Japan) caused Brexit and many other electoral upsets to happen.
Russia is still a mighty military power.
They have the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, and many of the same people still in charge of them as when the Berlin Wall fell.
They have hyperbaric missiles, which we do not.
They have thermosonic missiles, which we do not.
They have tsunami bombs, which we do not.
And an all-powerful propaganda machine that can command the support of over 80% of living Russians.
That threatens the demands of the left today.
Which are to travel across borders. Which you couldn’t do when the Iron Curtain existed.
Factually, Trump said Putin’s tactics were genius, not the man himself.
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