On the anti-war side

Peter Manson argues for comrades' consistency

It is always important to accurately assess the strengths, weaknesses and failings of political allies and opponents alike. Unfortunately, however, our CPGB anti-Diane Abbott comrades are so determined to paint her a pro-war, pro-cuts Labourite, virtually identical to - god help us - Ed Miliband, that they are in serious danger of losing total touch with reality.

Replying to my article, ‘Debating the Labour leadership contest’ (September 16), 10 anti-Abbott comrades criticise me for attempting to “turn Diane Abbott into the anti-war candidate we all know she is not” (‘Diane Abbott: class matters’, September 23). What is more, I am accused of trying to “cover up her sell-out over her vote over the Iraq war in 2009”, when they say she voted for “a motion that calls for the continuing role of British forces and highlighting the hard work of occupying troops”.

As I explained in my article, the vote was not “over the Iraq war”, but over the timing of an announcement of an enquiry into the 2003 invasion. On March 26 2009, when the vote was taken, all but a handful of British troops had already been withdrawn - by the end of May only 150 remained as Iraq army training instructors and they too were pulled out before the end of July, on the insistence of the Iraqi parliament. Gordon Brown had announced this timetable on December 15 2008. So it does seem a little odd to describe the amendment (not “motion”) that Abbott voted for as one that “calls for the continuing role of British forces”.

It was because the end of the occupation was now a recognised fact and, said the Conservatives, there were no more ongoing military operations which might be ‘compromised’ by an enquiry, the details of such an enquiry ought to be announced immediately. The Labour amendment insisted that the matter must be delayed until combat troops had been completely withdrawn a few weeks later. That was the context of the amendment’s reference to “the heroic efforts of the British armed forces in Iraq, who have a continuing role”.

MPs were voting on the timing of the announcement, not on the nature of the occupation. As I admitted in my article, I do not know why Abbott voted for the Labour amendment (other Labour lefts voted against and for the Tory motion), but it is certainly stretching things to say that the fact she did so demonstrates her “lack of anti-war credentials”, as the comrades did in their previous contribution (‘No vote for Abbott’, September 16). You might just as well say that the Tories voted against the amendment because they opposed the occupation and the “heroic efforts” of the troops.

I would have thought a more accurate measure of Diane Abbott’s attitude to the Iraq war could be gleaned from Commons votes that were actually directly related to the invasion. There were three of these - November 25 2002, February 26 2003 and March 18 2003 - when Tony Blair was asking for MPs’ endorsement of the Bush-Blair policy of bringing Saddam Hussein into line “by all means necessary” for his failure to destroy his (non-existent) ‘weapons of mass destruction’. On each occasion, Abbott voted with the minority of Labour MPs who opposed the war threats. Back in November 2002, there were only 30 of them, but, because of the mass anti-war upsurge, this number grew to 86 by March 18 2003, two days before the invasion.

Abbott also supported the obstructive amendments on each occasion and had been part of a protest by rebel Labour MPs on September 9 2002, when they forced a vote on a technicality because of the government’s obfuscation over the WMD ‘dodgy dossier’. In the following years Abbott featured on many a Stop the War Coalition platform and, according to the STWC, has “often spoken at Stop the War events” (stopwar.org.uk/content/view/1874/27).

A few more words need to be said about those obstructive amendments in the Commons. The first, on November 25 2002, demanded that there be no military action against Saddam without a United Nations mandate and a Commons vote. For communists this is all very dubious, implying that a second UN resolution would have made the invasion legitimate and perhaps could then have been endorsed in parliament. Similarly the February 26 2003 amendment, which found “the case for military action as yet unproven”, implied that the imperialists have a general right to launch invasions and slaughter many thousands, if only they put together a convincing “case”.

However, I would not condemn the likes of Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and George Galloway for voting for these amendments. They were, after all, desperately trying to block the imperialists’ warmongering in parliament using parliamentary methods. It is not exactly easy for minorities to have such amendments debated and it is often necessary to negotiate with MPs from other parties just to get them onto the agenda. And the main party supporting these obstructive and delaying amendments was the Liberal Democrats - a factor that had to be taken into account.

None of that, however, justifies their voting for the amendment of March 18. This was so heavily influenced by the Lib Dems that its ‘anti-war’ content was completely negated. After reiterating that “the case for war against Iraq has not yet been established”, it went on to state: “in the event that hostilities do commence, [this house] pledges its total support for the British forces engaged in the Middle East, expresses its admiration for their courage, skill and devotion to duty, and hopes that their tasks will be swiftly concluded with minimal casualties on all sides.”

There was absolutely no need for the Labour left to vote for this counterproductive amendment, as Abbott, McDonnell, Galloway et al all did. It was a much clearer and more foolish error than Abbott’s 2009 vote to delay the enquiry, to which our comrades object so strongly. Labour anti-war MPs should have contented themselves with voting against the government motion, and given up on any common amendment. Perhaps they thought it was the price they had to pay to keep the Lib Dems on board; or perhaps they hoped their “support for British forces” would be taken as an empathetic gesture to individual soldiers rather than as a go-ahead for the military machine - but there I go again, acting as ‘attorney’ for unprincipled Labour lefts and their ‘collapse into social chauvinism’. 

In any event, now that I have drawn this amendment to the attention of our anti-Abbott comrades, I am sure they will stop insisting on making a false distinction between her and John McDonnell. Both MPs voted in an identical manner over Iraq in 2002-03. They were both in the anti-war camp at that time, over the following years and up to the present.

To be consistent, the comrades should extend their leftist moralism to McDonnell and declare him to be unsupportable too. In fact they should say that we cannot give critical support to any of the current crop of Labour lefts because of their undoubted nationalism and backing for ‘our boys and girls’. They should also declare that it was wrong for the CPGB to support George Galloway when he courageously urged British military personnel to mutiny by refusing to obey “illegal orders” in April 2003. Blair may have hauled him before a kangaroo court and had him expelled him from the Labour Party, and his stand may have given the anti-war movement a big boost. But anyone could see that he was actually playing into the imperialists’ hands by implying that ‘legal orders’ are just fine.

There again, perhaps our anti-Abbott CPGB comrades should accept that all anti-war left Labourites have severe limitations. However, they can be allies in the fight against the Blairite, openly pro-capitalist wing of the party and in the struggle to open it up to Marxist ideas.