February marks 15 years since Jeremy Corbyn was among leaders of our biggest ever anti-war demonstration. Now we need him to lead an anti-war government, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE.
THERE is little doubt that we live in challenging times, whether that be the permanent circus of reaction that is the Trump US presidency or the debates around Brexit and the future of the British economy and our role in the world.
Faced with such challenging times, people need representatives that they can trust and who they can relate to. After years of people losing faith in “mainstream” politicians, we need representatives who we can trust to tell the truth and stand firm on their promises and principles.
As the Labour Party enters this challenging and potentially epoch-defining year, the forthcoming 15th anniversary of the disastrous Bush and Blair war in Iraq should be seen as a timely reminder of how trust in politics got broken, where we are and where we need to go from here.
Few will need reminding that, nearly 15 years ago, the then Labour Party leader and prime minister Tony Blair advocated the invasion with the claim that Iraq possessed nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD), capable of being deployed within 45 minutes. If true, it was a frightening prospect.
Many of us, of course, believed that Blair had already taken his decision, entering into a war pact with US president George W Bush up to a year before.
A massive anti-war movement, which I was honoured to fully back as then mayor of London, refused to accept the case for war, but enormous pressure was applied inside Westminster to wavering MPs by the Blair leadership.
The build-up to the war in Iraq was one of those rare but truly historic occasions when all eyes are focused on the affairs of state. The prospect of war was discussed and debated in workplaces, schools and colleges, at bus stops and on trains, in pubs, hairdressers and cafes, in living rooms and at kitchen tables.
People do not soon forget moments such as these and the millions of votes Labour lost in the following years, and thousands and thousands of members who left in the aftermath, reflected how Labour’s then leadership lost people’s trust over Iraq.
Despite public opposition, Blair got the parliamentary votes that he required, including majority backing from the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The war on Iraq proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Millions were displaced, injured, lost loved ones or had their lives damaged in the chaos.
The threat of terrorism increased, contributing to the rise of the vile, reactionary group that now calls itself the Islamic State.
The claims that were made to win support for the war were proven false, vindicating the anti-war campaign.
Over 12 years later, in the summer of 2015, one of the tribunes of that anti-war movement, Jeremy Corbyn, became Labour leader.
On February 15 2003, I shared a platform with Jeremy, who told the largest-ever demonstration in British history that war would unleash a “spiral of conflict, of misery, of hate, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.”
The years since have proven him right and the wave of people rejoining the Labour Party to elect and then re-elect him as leader showed that people had not forgotten.
In the summer of 2016, in response to the Chilcot report, Corbyn spoke for Labour members and voters across Britain when he apologised on behalf of the party for its involvement in the rush to that disastrous war 15 years ago.
Ever since Jeremy became leader, his opponents in Parliament and the media have argued that Labour instead needs a leader better able to spin, flatter and cajole — a leader more along the lines of Blair.
But these are very different times. Numerous different shocks to the system — Iraq, the financial crash, the EU referendum and the impact of the Trump presidency — mean we need a leader for these times.
We need a different kind of leadership, both firm in its principles and radical in its approach.
To defeat the Tories in the period ahead and return to government, Labour needs to build on last year’s general election gains to assemble a winning coalition that unites the young, multiethnic, urban Britain that opted for Remain and the post-industrial and struggling working-class communities, many of whom voted Leave.
That means opposing disastrous wars, standing up to racism and, crucially, an unambiguous opposition to austerity and support for working people’s rights. Above all, it means rebuilding and winning back trust.
Fifteen years on from the war on Iraq, Corbyn has pledged to put peace and justice at the heart of foreign policy if he becomes prime minister.
As Jeremy has said, “British foreign policy has long failed to be either truly independent or internationally co-operative, making the country less safe and reducing our diplomatic and moral authority.”
With Jeremy in No 10, we would have — as a recent north London Stop the War Coalition meeting I spoke at and forthcoming national meeting tour has termed it — the anti-war government Britain needs.
Such an approach can help restore faith in our politics and provide a truly ethical framework for our foreign policy that will be both popular on the doorstep and make Britain safer and more respected in the world.
As we reflect on the 15th anniversary of the Iraq war, the Trump presidency has undoubtedly made the world a more dangerous place.
Under Theresa May, Britain could hold hands with Trump into conflicts even more disastrous than Bush and Blair’s.
We all need to build the pressure on a range of fronts against this government and force it out.
By electing a Corbyn-led Labour government in its place not only would we end the misery of millions caused by failing Tory austerity, we would also see the anti-war government which could help make Britain and the world a safer place.
First published in the Morning Star.