Two million anti-war activists march through London to oppose the Iraq invasion in 2003 (Picture: William M. Connolley)

Not a single Labour politician is today prepared to speak out openly against Nato’s flooding of Ukraine with hi-tech tanks and missiles. Whatever their private misgivings about the way arms shipments heighten the danger of nuclear conflict, none will join the platform of a meeting to say so.

It wasn’t always like this. Twenty years ago this month Labour prime minister Tony Blair suffered a career defining revolt among his own MPs.

On the eve of the West’s invasion of Iraq, a massive 121 Labour backbenchers broke strict instructions to vote for a rebel amendment. Another 78 MPs from other parties backed it too.

The dissenting authors wrote their clauses softly to gain maximum support. Their amendment said simply that the case for military ­intervention in Iraq was “as yet unproven”.

Although the government still won the vote ­comfortably, and secured the main motion for war with a far bigger majority, the scale of the rebellion shook Blair. He could not now claim to be speaking for all of his party, let alone for the whole country.

The 121 Labour MPs that voted against Blair’s war were not unlike the liberal and left ones we have today. The difference is in the world outside of parliament. In 2003, MPs were emboldened by an unprecedented wave of anti-war feeling and action that spread across Britain and the world.

The Stop the War Coalition had just brought together two million people in London for Britain’s biggest-ever street protest. Now there was talk of workplace walkouts, and mass sit-ins. Every town and city had its own Stop the War group. They put Blair’s war policy on trial in ­countless public meetings and on street stalls.

The rebellion in the Commons rested on this ­popular revulsion at the prospect of war, and in turn, it spurred it on further. Many trade unions, which would ordinarily be completely loyal to the Labour leadership, now felt pressure to back anti-war motions.

But inside Labour’s parliamentary left, there were nevertheless big tensions. Clare Short was a cabinet minister. She spent the period ­running up to the vote corralling a group of Labour MPs “concerned about the war” into a group that would back the prime minister.

At one stage, said Jeremy Corbyn MP, it seemed likely that 200 Labour MPs might oppose Blair. That would have been the great majority of ­backbenchers outside the ranks of those with government jobs.

Short helped Blair avoid that humiliation, thinking wrongly that it would allow the left to moderate his plans. It wasn’t long before Short regretted the way she had been played. She resigned from the government just a few weeks after the invasion of Iraq got underway.

Blair hated the left of his party every bit as much as Keir Starmer does today. But he understood its MPs had potential uses. By allowing some to stay on under his reign—and even tolerating some dissent—Blair ensured left MPs could play a future role in disciplining others.

In part that was because in the party he inherited from Neil Kinnock the left was already a diminished force. Starmer is playing a ­different game. 

He has banned Labour MPs from speaking out against war or Nato on pain of expulsion. This in turn has emboldened the right throughout the labour movement.

The TUC congress, which brings together all trade unions, last year passed a motion calling for an increase in defence spending. It beat the drums of war in Ukraine. It would have been far harder for warmongers had even a small number of Labour MPs spoken out.

But standing up against militarism would mean a fight against the leadership and maybe losing your seat. And that raises sharply the question of whether Labour is any sort of party for those against war.

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