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.