Blair's own poll tax
Harry Cohen, MP for Leyton and Wanstead, was one of only four Labour candidates in the May 5 general election to come out clearly and unequivocally for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of UK troops from Iraq
What for you are the most important issues as parliament reconvenes? Iraq is still very high on the agenda. Come December, the UN mandate will presumably have to be renewed. From statements coming from the minister and from Blair, it looks like we're just going to carry on there. I'm opposed to that - we need to be getting out of Iraq. So that's certainly a major issue over the next parliament - it could be for several years sadly - and it's an argument that's got to continue. But, with the mandate coming to an end, this provides another focus. It was deplorable that there was no proper discussion on Iraq at the Labour Party conference. I made it very plain before the conference that it should have been debated. Iraq is an appalling mess. Tony Blair talked in his speech about the change-makers - he should have said mess-makers. There's been a change all right, but, incredibly, for the worse. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but now there is a foul state with masses of killings all over the place. The question of Iraq will keep coming up and will continue to blight British politics in a number of ways - the proposals on terrorism flow from that. And that is the next issue - the quite draconian measures being proposed. There is, of course, a balance between having proper security and protecting our traditional civil liberties. But the government is very quick to get rid of these, such as the proposal to hold terrorist suspects for three months. Some reports have concluded it's about driving people mad - one Algerian guy nearly hung himself. This is what happens when you have these long periods of detention. The attorney general was saying the other day that the extra time is needed to examine computer records. But those sort of arguments could always have been used. They could have said in the past, for example, that investigations into the IRA take a lot of leg work - we haven't got the technology to get things done quickly. In fact this is an argument for a year, or two years, or five years; for locking people up and forgetting about them. You can never quite get enough information until the offence is proved - and they might be innocent and so you'll never prove it. There have in the past been cases of people who have been detained for long periods confessing to crimes they hadn't done - this is likely to happen again. What about the argument that the government cannot be trusted with such powers? That's a problem as well. The numbers, I think, will increase enormously and there is a real danger in that regard. You saw Walter Wolfgang being removed from the Labour Party conference and all of a sudden the anti-terrorism legislation was used to hold him. It's also been used against those protesting against arms fairs. Another linked question is nuclear power. I think they're in the process of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons. We must keep an eye on that and oppose it - it would blow the non-proliferation treaty sky-high. Iran, North Korea and the like are said to be a threat, but then we ourselves are under no restraint, it seems. We are actually in breach of our part of the treaty. There's hypocrisy here - people talked about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, yet we are going ahead with new WMD. It's as though that doesn't matter, as though it's a completely different issue. Connected to that, by the way, is the civil nuclear programme, which Blair mentioned in his conference speech. He's now tying that up with the campaign against global warming. But isn't it a coincidence that it's come back on the agenda when they're contemplating a new generation of nuclear weapons? I think the material will be used for weaponry and that's part of its purpose. But the cost is astronomic - the taxpayer was left with a bill of several billion pounds after the last lot. And we don't get that much electricity from it anyway, so the value is incredibly poor in that respect. Plus we still haven't got a solution for radioactive waste. But the bigger argument - much bigger even than the global warming one - is security. This material being produced could fall into the wrong hands. Some people might say it's already in the wrong hands with the present government. Well, in the sense that it's damaging to the non-proliferation treaty, I think that's true. But this material could be used for a 'dirty bomb'. Blair says security is all, and he wouldn't want to be a part of anything that blew up in our face. This could blow up in our face. Can I ask you about the Race and Religious Hatred Bill? Do you see this as part of the same attacks on democratic rights? I personally didn't and I supported it. I actually think it was meant to be helpful to muslims and ethnic minorities. It will put religious hatred on a par with racial discrimination. We had this very strange business of a couple of groups that were exempted. You could discriminate against muslims and that was unfair. It was a loophole. So I thought that was more of a positive measure actually. Many people, including religious groups and individuals, say it amounts to an attack on free speech. Well, I know that argument was put, but I think it was much more targeted against the BNP. Mind you, measures said to be targeted against the right have often been used against the left. There's always that danger. But Jews and Sikhs were seen as a race, while muslims and others were not. That didn't make sense and wasn't fair. In any case, it's quite limited. What's much more serious is some of the more draconian stuff. Beyond that, Blair is now rushing through his marketisation agenda - he calls it 'reform', but it's really putting the profiteers in a big way into the health service and so on. And he's desperate to get on with it before he goes. He doesn't feel restrained in any way. So there's going to be a row about that, I think. I don't object to fair reform, but not privatisation. That applies to the issue of pensions too, which comes up in December. They're also going to be much tougher on incapacity benefit, but a lot of those people have mental illness or have had breakdowns. But they don't want to get down to the nitty gritty of helping them into work. For example, if you declare you've had a mental breakdown, there are many jobs you won't get - that's not being tackled. Yet they'll have their benefits cut. Issues like housing benefit are on the horizon as well - a lot of people will pay higher rent as a result. It's a long list of attacks on the working class of the kind more associated with Tory administrations in the past. This is an interesting point. Blair said at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting that all this represents a change in the political culture. What he meant was a change in the electoral culture - because the Tories are not presenting a challenge, his entire approach is to take their ground. With a Labour government, you do get some changes for the better - they're certainly better than the Tories overall. But you're not changing the political culture. If you're stealing their ground, you're keeping a political culture that is Tory, even if it's slightly more benevolent. How do you see the future of the Labour Party when Blair steps down with Brown as the anointed one? They're trying to make him that, but I don't think it's that straightforward. Blair could go on for a while - he's talked about the whole parliament anyway, so he could be prime minister right up to the election in four or five years time. He wants to pass Maggie Thatcher's period in office, so he might do what Schröder did - somebody else becomes party leader, but he stays on as prime minister. Or he might just do 10 years, which would take him to the 2007 party conference. Glenda Jackson has said she'd stand against him in the next period if he hasn't made a move to go. I think there would be a challenge eventually. For Blair, Iraq is very much like the poll tax was for Mrs Thatcher. She was totally inflexible and wouldn't change despite what the British people wanted, so the Tories could see themselves going down the drain over it. Because of that they moved against her and she was gone. The only reason that's not happened with Blair is because he's said he'll go, which has taken a bit of steam out of things. It's exactly the same - he's completely inflexible on Iraq. That's going to give us difficulties for the council elections. How would you view a Brown leadership? I personally think it would be an improvement. He's probably more linked into old Labour than Blair. Ken Clarke has said that Blair is a cuckoo in the Tory nest. It's a very appropriate phrase, but in some ways, he's a cuckoo in our nest as well. But Brown was at pains to associate himself with New Labour at conference. Yes, he was and I think that was part of getting anointed without being challenged by another Blairite. But that might fall apart, quite frankly. And I think there would be change under Brown once he's away from the grip of the Blairites. He might slowly move things - not a lot - away from their agenda. Some of the better things that were done originated with Brown: children's tax relief, the new deal and things like that. Perhaps we wouldn't see any more foreign adventures and that would be a good thing. You also have to take into account the Tories. Because Blair went to the right, they kept choosing a rightwing leader too. But Blair's reaction was to go even further to the right - and then people to the left peeled off. Now, if the Tories pick a more middle-of-the-road leader, that would mean Brown would have to come back slightly to the left. Blair might not because he's rushing his agenda through and doesn't care in that way, but Brown or a future Labour leader would have to move back to the left. So the Tory leader is important to us too. They're not following a strategy of putting radical ideas to the public for them to approve. They're following a strategy of 'Can we steal the centre ground?' But surely Labour as the government is in a stronger position than the Tories to keep the centre ground. Why should Brown have to cede it? He'll still have to come to meetings of the PLP and say there's a difference between us - Blair said that himself. They do have to take note when people say, 'You're all the same.' If the Tories pick another rightwing leader, then the Labour leadership would carry on moving to the right. But not if they choose a 'moderate'. And I'm not sure that the present situation, with the Tories being so weak, is going to carry on. So Labour really has to deliver more. We've had a great chance to actually do what Blair talks about - change the political culture and change society through policies of equality and social justice to deal with poverty. We really could have got on with it in a much more progressive way. Public opinion is to the left of the government, after all. You mentioned Glenda Jackson, but is it possible for there to be a credible challenge from the left? It's difficult just getting the numbers. We've got to get 71 backbench MPs, but the Campaign Group only has 28 members, I think. So what do you see as the strategy for the Labour left? Do you think it is possible to 'reclaim' the Labour Party? That's a long-term project in lots of ways. When Blair goes, it won't be easy. I think a number of the Blairites will disappear - perhaps they'll go off to the Tories, or perhaps they'll try a repeat of the SDP. There'll be all sorts of struggles ahead, against the right in a new form. At the moment the trade unions are compliant, but that compliance is a little bit conditional. Last year there was the Warwick agreement and at conference this year they defeated the government on several issues. Their patience could run out - with some of them it already has: the firefighters and the RMT, for instance. They are becoming more organised - they worked with each other to get those resolutions through at conference. Blair has made it clear that he has no intention whatsoever of taking any notice of the resolution calling for repeal of certain aspects of the anti-union laws, for example. So how can such words be translated into action? That's a matter of political struggle. Will the unions accept it or not? Will they make a stand on pensions? If the government come up with a good solution, Unison might just ease off on the issues they fought over at conference. But if they don't, the unions might realise they're getting nowhere and take action over public service pensions. It's like squeezing a balloon and the bulge comes out somewhere else.