“It’s always very easy to send other people’s children to war.”Dennis Skinner (quoted by Jeremy Corbyn)
By Ben Hayes, Islington North CLP & Arise Volunteer
Saturday’s event ’10 Years on from the War on Libya: Why Labour Must Be Anti-War’ saw several thousand tune in across Zoom and various social media platforms. Chaired by Labour Councillor and Vice Chair of London CND Emma Dent Coad, the meeting discussed the lessons of the war a decade on and its relevance for left today.
Arise’s Matt Willgress opened by emphasising the importance of highlighting the reality of a war which was used to reheat the agenda of ‘liberal interventionism’: the scathing report of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the undermining of numerous attempts from the African Union to help facilitate peaceful resolution, and the scores of casualties reported by the New York Times as well as numerous human rights organisations.
He added that it was vital for the anti-war movement not to ‘pack up our bags and go home’ after the defeat of Trump in the US, with numerous important fronts to campaign on: particularly the need to provide a socialist and internationalist message in discussions around Britain’s place in the world in the aftermath of Brexit.
Chair of the Stop the War Coalition Murad Qureshi paid tribute to the 13 MPs who voted against the war in Parliament, and contrasted their foresight with the rash approach of the British and American governments in ignoring all warnings about the consequences of their actions.
Drawing on the historic role of the Labour left in organisations such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom, he called on activists today to raise awareness of these struggles and continue to campaign against contemporary neo-colonialist policies.
Qureshi also reflected on the current pandemic, and noted how the government’s positions on nurses’ pay and increased military spending demonstrated its skewed priorities.
MP for Leicester East Claudia Webbe said that the war demonstrated the arrogance of our political establishment in refusing to learn the lessons of Iraq, and that its legacy cannot be allowed to be whitewashed.
She also pointed out that in addition to wars and interventions, aggression in foreign policy is taking the form of arms sales, as seen in Saudi Arabia’s use of British and American bombs in Yemen, and intensifying sanctions on countries such as Venezuela.
Given our own government’s unwavering support for this reactionary agenda (e.g the recent reports outlining the extent of Britain’s support for the now overturned coup in Bolivia), she emphasised the need for the labour movement to unite behind calls for an independent progressive foreign policy, as well as much needed investment in our communities, services and industries.
Barbara Ntumy of the Black Liberation Alliance used the recent case of moves to waive the patents on COVID-19 vaccines being blocked as an example of how the dynamics of imperialism continues to affect huge parts of our world today.
With the United Nations estimating that up to 90% of people who cross the Mediterranian Sea into Europe depart from Libya, she noted how many of the countries who gave their enthusiastic support to the war were quick to shun the refugees seeking safety from the following humanitarian catastrophe. In the face of global threats such as climate change, Ntumy made the case for building and strengthening alliances based on solidarity and the future of humanity as a whole.
The Progressive International’s James Schneider spoke of the need to challenge the argument the Labour’s default position on foreign policy must be to fall in line with the government: highlighting that, despite all too often enjoying little representation in mainstream media outlets and Parliament, anti-war positions have consistently enjoyed high levels of public support (e.g a recent poll suggested 77% of voters support the call for a global ban on nuclear weapons.
This, he argued, is part of the reason that there is always a deluge of pro-war rhetoric aimed at getting the wider population on board in the run up to military action: and why progressive Labour activists should get involved with building a popular and powerful peace movement. Schneider also discussed the importance of putting forward a vision of global co-operation to put human need over profit- arguing that “real security is linked to real justice”.
Jeremy Corbyn opened by reflecting on the numerous wars he’s seen launched during his Parliamentary career of more than 35 years, noting that House of Commons often had a ‘baying bearpit’ atmosphere during debates on military action: leading Dennis Skinner to remark that “it’s always very easy to send other people’s children to war’.
Reflecting on how issues of imperialism and war have always been the subject of divisions within the British labour movement, Corbyn discussed the resistance from many quarters to his speech on foreign policy in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attacks during the 2017 general election campaign, but stated he felt it was ‘important to show that Labour would offer a very different kind of government’. He recalled that the first few hours after his remarks drew furious denunciations from various political figures, but that they soon went quiet after opinion polls showed widespread public support for his stance (with more Conservative voters agreeing than disagreeing)- this, he suggested, indicates that successive wars (and claims such as the infamous ‘45 minutes’ used to justify them) have created a mass scepticism towards British foreign policy amongst the general public.
The MP for Islington North slammed the government’s proposal to increase nuclear warheads at a time when countries around the world are seeking to advance global disarmament: arguing that the way to build genuine security across the world is to address the crises of inequality, poverty and climate change by ensuring a right to food, education and healthcare. He also mentioned the need to highlight the links between war and the rights of refugees, with over 70 million people now displaced around the world.
Corbyn also committed to continuing campaigning for a War Powers Act to help stop rushes to conflict, and called for a greater say for Labour members in forming the party’s position on foreign policy issues. In the face of mounting global tensions, he stated that it was more important than ever for the left to propose and fight for an international order based on peace and dialogue, summarising that “we stand for hope over fear.”