Vote Cohen, McDonnell, Qureshi and Riordan

Most of Labour's 'antiwar' candidates fudge on the issue of the occupation of Iraq, writes Peter Manson

The CPGB is recommending a vote for only four Labour candidates in next week's general election. These are: Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead), John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington), Yasmin Qureshi (Brent East), and Linda Riordan (Halifax). Of all the 600-plus Labour Party candidates contesting, only these four take something approaching a principled stand on the central question of Iraq, the war and the ongoing occupation. Comrades Cohen, McDonnell and Riordan are all outgoing members of parliament who voted against the war, while Yasmin Qureshi says she would have done so, had she been an MP. Of course, the number of Labour 'rebels' was rather larger than that, and Labour Against the War has drawn up a list of 33 candidates whom it classifies as anti-war. But, then again, the Liberal Democrats claim to be anti-war - until the invasion started, that is. At that point they fell in four-square behind 'our boys and girls'. Voting against the invasion is therefore not enough. The acid test is the attitude of candidates to the current occupation: do they recognise that the imperialists have no right to be in Iraq and therefore demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of UK forces? When it comes down to it, the position of most of the 33 'anti-war' Labour candidates is as useless as that of the Lib Dems - or worse. For example, it turns out that Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) voted for the war in March 2003, having made some oppositional gestures in two divisions the previous month. And how about Joan Humble (Blackpool North and Fleetwood)? On March 1 2004 she is quoted by Hansard as having asked the following (extremely) 'friendly' question of defence secretary Geoff Hoon: "Is my right hon friend aware that, along with other Lancashire members, I met representatives of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment when it returned from Basra last year? We learned that it had been involved in reconstructing 30 local schools and two orphanages, that it had worked to train the local police support unit in Basra, that it had maintained fuel supplies and much more. Will he therefore join me in congratulating the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, in particular, and the other units that have been doing such vital work in reconstructing Iraq?" That gives you some idea of Mrs Humble's strong stand against the occupation - and the, shall we say, somewhat broad view taken by the LATW comrades in deciding just who constitutes a Labour anti-war candidate that is deserving of support. Others on the LATW list to categorically reject the idea of an immediate and unconditional withdrawal were Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green), who told us bluntly, through his agent, that UK forces "can't pull out"; Martin Caton (Gower) was also "not in favour", while Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak) said she had "just come back from Iraq and it is not what the people want". She was for a withdrawal based on "agreement with the Iraqi government". The agent of Linda Perham (Ilford North) assured us that she had voted against the invasion six times, but, now that UK troops are there, she thinks they "have to get the job done". Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) let us know what he thought of our question ("Are you in favour of an immediate and unconditional withdrawal?") by making it clear he was refusing to reply. To be fair, most of those on the LATW list are not so keen on the occupation as, for instance, the right honourable Joan Humble. But a good many of the others have, at the very least, an ambiguous attitude towards the British forces. Their argument runs along the lines of: 'Yes, the invasion was wrong and the occupation must be ended. But UK forces must help pave the way for a smooth and peaceful handover rather than simply leaving Iraq in its current state of chaos.' Helen Clark (Peterborough) gave us the following statement: "I voted against the war in Iraq consistently, and was right to do so. What we must do now is work for the quickest managed withdrawal. Much as I would like an immediate withdrawal in theory, in practice I suspect it would lead to an horrific bloodbath." Thus some sort of progressive role is ascribed to British troops. They are not viewed as the main problem by many of our 'anti-occupation' Labour candidates, but as playing a useful 'peacekeeping' role in the short term. In reality the only difference they have with Tony Blair is over the length of time UK troops should ideally remain. Alan Simpson (Nottingham South) told us he was in favour of "troops out by the end of this year, as per the UN mandate". And if the "UN mandate" is then extended? Most of the others were more vague, saying things like: "I would support a planned withdrawal of troops" (Julie Morgan, Cardiff North); or calling for "a phased and negotiated withdrawal" (John Austin, Erith and Thamesmead). In similar vein, Desmond Turner (Brighton Kemptown) answered our question in the negative, as the withdrawal for him had to be "orderly". While Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) was, according to her agent, in favour of the pullout coming "as soon as possible", it must be "based on some sort of settlement rather than a 'troops out now' strategy". John Cryer (Hornchurch) agreed with us that UK forces had no business being in Iraq in the first place - "that is my position too". But, when asked if in that case they should leave immediately, he replied: "No. It should be a timetabled withdrawal, but soon." Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) was said by her agent to be for a "speedy withdrawal", but she did not wish to elaborate on just how "speedy" it should be. Bob Marshall-Andrews (Medway) answered with a promising "yes", and then immediately added rather cryptically: "but only when certain circumstances pertain" - and that was all he was prepared to say. Paul Flynn (Newport West) declared: "It isn't practical at the moment. We have obligations." Anneliese Dodds (Billericay) just did not know what to think. She was far from happy with "the present situation", but "after seeing what happened in Afghanistan" she could not make up her mind on whether UK forces ought to leave or stay. Along with nine others on the LATW list of anti-war Labour candidates, Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) did not get back to us. We telephoned each of their campaign offices at least five or six times and emailed our brief question to all those we could. They are all clearly afraid "¦ afraid of embarrassing the Labour Party, afraid of accusations of being aligned to terrorists. I did, however, find this statement on the ending of the occupation from Jeremy Corbyn, made in 2004: "The only way forward now is for Britain and the US to name a date for withdrawal and the handing of authority to an accountable, rather than appointed, administration in Baghdad. They could then organise elections and, if requiring international support, could ask the UN for it" (undated, www.poptel.or-g.uk/scgn/articles/0406/p3.htm). Well, the election has come and gone, but the date has still not been named. So what does Jeremy say now? The nine others who did not get back to us are: John Grogan (Selby), Albert Owen (Ynys Mon), Mike Wood (Batley and Spen), Marsha Singh (Bradford West), Christine McCafferty (Calder Valley), Phil Sawford (Kettering), Ian Gibson (Norwich North), Gordon Prentice (Pendle) and Laura Bruni Colchester. By contrast we received the following statement from Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington): "I have voted against the war in Iraq at every opportunity and I think it is a stain on the record of my government. It is now clear that there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that we went to war on the basis of a lie. "I welcome the holding of elections in Iraq, but I now think the most important thing is to set a date for the withdrawal of British and American troops from the country. If needed, a regional force or a UN peacekeeping force should take over. We run the risk that if the occupation continues our troops will begin to look like a neo-colonialist occupation force rather than a force of liberation. "It is also important that we here in Britain do not use the so-called 'war on terror' as an excuse to take away people's civil liberties. I have voted against the government's anti-terrorist legislation and will continue to oppose it." It is, of course, a good thing that Diane Abbott voted against the war and the 'anti-terror' legislation. But she is implicitly endorsing the occupation of Iraq by making their departure conditional on, "if needed", some other imperialist-sponsored "peacekeeping" occupation. Note that we "run the risk" that UK troops will "begin to look like a neo-colonialist occupation force" - up to now they have been "a force of liberation" obviously. Even Blair will eventually "set a date" for withdrawal - and we are not to know whether Ms Abbott's will arrive any sooner than Blair's. So that leaves us with just four Labour candidates whom we consider to be worthy of working class votes. They were the only ones able to commit themselves to support for an immediate end to the occupation, without couching their reply to our question with all sorts of 'ifs' and 'buts'. Harry Cohen telephoned us personally, repeated the question and said: "My straight answer is 'yes'. It needs to be orderly, but the end of the occupation is the only hope for the people of Iraq." John McDonnell came out with a totally unambiguous "Yes". He said he had recently attended a meeting with representatives of both sunni and shia Iraqis and "everyone was of the same view: as long as you have an army of occupation, it is just a nightmare scenario". Linda Riordan's spokesperson did use the phrase "as soon as possible", but gave an equally uncomplicated "yes" to the question. Yasmin Qureshi did not speak to us herself, but her election leaflet contains the call for a the "immediate withdrawal" of troops. Our recommendation, then, is vote Labour - but only in Leyton and Wanstead, Hayes and Harlington, Halifax, and Brent East. Peter Manson