The Iraq War must no longer poison our relations with Labour

What would we remember of the Labour government, if Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attack fifteen years ago had never happened? If Labour had listened to the advice of Robin Cook and John Denham, and not engaged in the catastrophe of the Iraq war?

Many of us will remember Robin Cook’s electrifying resignation speech. If only he were alive today. However, he was not the only Labour minister to step down from government office because of the Iraq war. In his prescient resignation speech, on the 18th March, 2003, John Denham said:

If we act in the wrong way, we will create more of the problems that we aim to tackle. For every cause of insecurity with which we try to deal, we shall create a new one.

This summer, I was an observer at the Fabian and Progress summer conferences. I didn’t hear anyone try to defend the Iraq war, and a number agreed it had been a terrible mistake. In fact, if you substituted the word Labour for Liberal Democrat, almost everything that was said could have been said at a Liberal Democrat conference, and probably will be in this coming week.

Fifteen years on from Iraq, the challenges of the centre-left are very different from 2003. There have been three catastrophes: the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the long period of Conservative rule that will probably follow, the narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU last June, and the slow rise of nationalism and decline of social democracy across Europe. These are challenges for the Liberal Democrats as well as for Labour. If we are to meet them, I believe we will have to work together. And, if the legacy of both Iraq and the Coalition has poisoned our relations, the antidote must be to start talking again.

One of the striking lessons of the referendum is how those who see themselves as English feel that the political class does not speak for them. This is something John Denham noticed before most. A year ago, he called for an English Labour party. In the recent referendum, he said

England is the backbone that has made Britain great. There’s as much at stake for us as for any other part of the Union.

A Leave vote will make England weaker and less important than we are today. We’ll be an England that gave up its influence for good in the world. All the big challenges – migration, wars, terrorism, climate change – will still be there; it’s just that we will have less say about them.

As well as the politics of identity, among the major underlying reasons for the Referendum vote were globalisation and the off-shoring of many jobs to East Asia and the rest of the world, and the jobs lost due to mechanisation and computerisation. These changes have cost the jobs of many of our natural supporters, and, for those who remain employed, have caused a major downward pressure on their wages.

The Social Democrat Group has invited John Denham, along with Hugo Dixon, Stephen Bush and Norman Lamb on Monday lunchtime, to discuss these issues in a fringe meeting: “How can the centre-left reach the left behind?”

However, one fringe meeting is not enough. If we are to influence the future of our country, we’ll need to build better relations with social democrats outside the party, and talk much more about such shared challenges in the months ahead.

* George Kendall is the acting chair of the Social Democrat Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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30 Comments

  • Trouble is it wasn’;t just the Iraq War that poisoned our relationship with Labour was it?
    Civil Liberties issues, like 90 day detention, ID cards, fingerprinting of school children etc were huge issues for many Liberals.

    Labour (and I have to say many social democrats) often give the impression that every issue boils down to economics, whereas for many of us it was the historic Liberal commitment to individual freedom that made us join the Liberal and not Labour.
    Liberals also have a distrust of centralisation and big government, whereas many in Labour have seen a strong central government and large public sector workforce as ends in themselves.

  • Which Labour ? There are currently at least 3 flavours of Labour on offer & the only thing we are likely to agree with all 3 on is the need for PR ( once a formal seperation takes place) Every Libdem Election leaflet should point out the Labour divisions & that Labour voters dont know which flavour they are going to get.

  • Conor Clarke 16th Sep '16 - 1:00pm

    Our relationship with Labour is that they are a rival political party that we have to beat.

    That’s it.

    Stop trying to homogenize every non-Conversative party into a bland, soft-left mush.

  • Stevan Rose 16th Sep '16 - 3:30pm

    Well said Conor

  • Nick Collins 16th Sep '16 - 4:44pm

    @ Conor & Stevan. Badly said. That’s the attitude that will ensure Tory domination of English, if not British, politics for the rest of this century.

    But, George, is the problem not merely that the iraq war is poisoning relations between Labour and other progressive parties; is it not poisoning relations within Labour itself?

  • Christopher Haigh 16th Sep '16 - 4:54pm

    Good article George. Apart from Iraq Tony Blair was perfectly sound. He should have been more of a student of Harold Wilson in terms of his foreign policy.

  • Laurence Cox 16th Sep '16 - 6:35pm

    What I think the left of the Party should be worrying about is the way it is fragmenting, just like the Labour party: first we had the Social Liberal Forum, then some people split off to form Liberal Left, now we have the Social Democrat Group, all of which seem to be trying to occupy the same political space.

  • What we should consider when thinking about our relations with Labour are the failure of the Labour governments (1997-2010) to re-establish full employment as the major aim of government economic policy and its idea that some citizens are undeserving and need the state to make them do things so they can be housed and feed. Also there is a “Labour attitude” – which is a belief that they have a divine right to be elected in some places and that Liberal Democrats are just Tories.

  • “Badly said. That’s the attitude that will ensure Tory domination of English, if not British, politics for the rest of this century.”

    If I wanted a Labour Government I’d have joined the Labour Party not the Lib Dems. I have no more desire to see Labour in power than the Tories. Not being Labour is how we win in urban poorer seats. In any case, Blair won in England. New Labour showed that changing the message gave them massive majorities. Tory domination can only arise because they attract more voters than other parties. You don’t beat them by bunking up with Corbyn and his pals. You beat them by having a message that voters can align themselves to more often than with other parties.

  • Labour are inherently authoritarian and intolerant. They spent the coalition years trying to destroy us, and currently have no wish to work with each other to provide an effective Opposition, let alone anyone else. It comes from absolute conviction in whatever they believe in.

    If we ‘start talking,’ I’d be amazed if they bothered to listen, let alone respond. Beyond the ‘you propped up the Tories’ sneering of the past six years. Or the ‘you lot just sit on the fence’ sneering before that.

  • Nick Collins 17th Sep '16 - 11:21am

    “They spent the coalition years trying to destroy us,”

    I thought you did a pretty effective job of destroying yourselves,

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '16 - 5:55pm

    Nick Collins – what is the point of your message?

    Are you happy to see the Liberal Democrats destroyed so that we have a perpetual Tory government? That’s what it has led to, and Labour don’t seem to have any way out of it.

    I was very critical of the LibDem leadership during the time of the coalition, but Labour’s policy was clearly just to jeer abuse at the LibDems in the supposition that destroying the LibDems would restore the good ol’ two-party system, and, er … well, do you like what we have now? It was rather obvious that destroying the LibDems but having no constructive alternative would lead to just that.

    The first issue is that the power of the LibDems to negotiate in the coalition was small. So Labour’s constant accusations that somehow the LibDems could have got anything they wanted, and are bad people because they didn’t, is ridiculous. If there was an alternative it would have to be Labour-led, but Labour never presented a serious alternative because they couldn’t. My won feeling is that the policies of the coalition, much though I disliked them, were about what one would expect from a government that was five sixths Tory and only one sixth LibDem.

    The second issue is that because of Labour’s attitude, when the LibDems did stand firm against the Tories and looked round for support, they got none. I believe that had Labour taken a different and more constructive attitude, vocally backing the LibDems in trying to push things their way, the LibDems would have been able to achieve more.

    The third issue is that Labour’s position helped the right-wing of the LibDems take control. The right-wing actually used the line “Oh, we’ve lost all our left-wing support, no point in trying to win it back, we should be looking for votes elsewhere” to try and marginalise the left-wing of the party. I think had there been more support and acknowledgement for those of us on the left of the LibDems, we would have been more successful in stopping the many mistakes made by the leadership, but Labour instead just wanted to make out that all members of the LibDems were uncritical supporters of the right-wing leadership.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Sep '16 - 6:42pm

    I have to say that , while in its present form , I would agree with Stevan Rose, above , I would no more really want a Labour government , than a Tory one, the work of George and , his article here , and of Rob in his comments , is to be applauded.

    I was in Labour as a youth and younger man. The same age group as Tim and Nick , our party leaders , I have seen how alliances and allegiances can change. I admired Blair a lot more once than Major , now in many ways I prefer the latter. The Labour party contains liberals , social democrats , as well as , now the bulk of it , socialists. We must never forget that three of the Gang of Four are an important part of the history of this party, and the contribution they and so many social democrats from the SDP made , is as obvious today as ever.Dick , now for years , Lord Newby , and as of this week our leader there, is ex SDP and so what is happening in Labour could attract many good people to us.

    When I saw Jo Cox, in her first days and weeks in parliament , and followed her activities online , I thought , there is someone I like , that reminded me of the best of the party I was in in my youth. She is , tragically , not with us in person, but the legacy of hers and all good social democrats must lead to common cause at times.

    If the party we know as Liberal, are not democrats or liberal in their attitudes towards others, to know that social democrats who are liberal, are our friends , as are some of the members of Bright Blue the liberal oriented Tories, then we are not practicing what we preach.

    But as a party , the Conservatives, nor Labour or the Greens, are , are not Liberal Democrats and we know it !

  • Nick Collins – thank you for proving my point.

  • “I genuinely believe that we can attract moderate Labour members to our ranks if we engage with them positively”

    Having come back after flirting with Labour for a couple of elections during the Blair years, I would totally agree that there is huge potential to engage with individuals and encourage defection. But our strength is our independence. What does it say at the top of every page on this blog? Not paid for by trade unions or millionaires. We have no need of alliances and they have not been kind to us.

  • Nick Collins 18th Sep '16 - 10:26am

    @Cassie B: And what point was that? I am not a member of the Labour Party. The only parties I have ever been a member of are the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats. I am now a member of none.

    @Matthew H: I am sorry, but i am not going to respond to your comment (I have heard it all before); life is too short.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '16 - 1:54pm

    Nick Collins

    @Matthew H: I am sorry, but i am not going to respond to your comment (I have heard it all before); life is too short.

    So you have no answer then. All you can do is pointlessly jeer.

    “Nah nah nah nah nah”.

  • Nick Collins 18th Sep '16 - 4:08pm

    @ Matthew H. Have the last word, if it amuses you, even if it is a word, or collection of words, which you have used countless times before.

    I no longer read your posts: they are too long, too repetitive and too boring. If you want to equate that, in your own words not mine, to “nah x 5” that’s fine by me.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '16 - 5:23pm

    Nick Collins

    I no longer read your posts: they are too long, too repetitive and too boring.

    Well, I am sorry that you have no constructive reply to make.

    I myself believe in constructive opposition. That means if you accuse someone of doing a bad thing, you must have a better thing in mind they could have done, and you ought to say what it is.

    I am asking you, and others who make similar points to yours, what the alternative would be. I am sorry if it is repetitive, but that is because I keep asking and I don’t get a straight answer.

  • Nick Collins 18th Sep '16 - 9:03pm

    Ok Matthew. I’ll go back to your original question

    “Are you happy to see the Liberal Democrats destroyed so that we have a perpetual Tory government? That’s what it has led to, and Labour don’t seem to have any way out of it.”

    I predicted in 2010 that the coalition would lead to the destruction of the Liberal Democrats and it has. I agree with what you say about Labour. Unless something remarkable and unforeseen happens, the result will be a Tory government without effective opposition for many years to come: probably for the rest of my life-time. No, Matthew, I am not happy about it, but that is the situation.

    I first joined the Liberal Party in 1962 when it had six MPs and about 5% of the popular vote. Now it has eight MPs and 8%. I’m too old to go back to the future.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '16 - 12:11am

    Nick Collins

    I predicted in 2010 that the coalition would lead to the destruction of the Liberal Democrats and it has.

    Indeed, if one looks at coalitions, the small party always suffers. The idea that the small party can get whatever it wants is wrong. Yet attacks like yours seem to be based on the idea that the Liberal Democrats could have got whatever they wanted from the coalition, and so are bad people because they did not.

    I think this is unfair, so why do you make such attacks?

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '16 - 12:16am

    George Kendall

    Many have many myths about our party. They forget that we were a merger of both the Liberals and the Social Democrat Party.

    Yes, and it was the right-wing of the Liberal Party that had most in common with the SDP.

    But now we have this ides being pushed around that the SDP was the more left-wing aspect of the merged party. That is totally and utterly false. This myth is being pushed by people who want to make out that the Liberal Party was mainly about free market economics. Those who push that idea are infiltrators, and they insult us who were true Liberals back then by pushing that false line.

  • Nick Collins 19th Sep '16 - 6:52am

    “Hi Nick Collins,
    Iraq is a factor in the divisions in Labour, but I think the political tensions within Labour are far, far deeper than that, and go back many years before the Iraq war.”

    I agree, George.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '16 - 5:05pm

    The issue with Labour is that they believe there should be a two-party system and they should be the monopoly left party. I’ve found this to be an almost universal position among Labour members, regardless of what other political position they take or whether they are individually friendly to you or not. If they are individually friendly with you, and agree with your own political position, they will generally conclude by saying “You should join the Labour Party” and think of that as a great complement. I am surprised at the way the concept of a multi-party system seems so strange to them that they seem unable even to think about it.

    This is why though I’ve had a lot of unhappiness with the Liberal Democrats and am concerned about what seems to be a drift to the right in the party, I’ve never wanted to leave the party and join Labour.

    As I’ve already said, Labour’s attitude means that underneath they want to destroy us for messing up politics as they think it should be. They will make that their priority, as we saw 2010-15, even if it means boosting the Tories.

  • Nick Collins: pardon my presumption. An easy mistake to make, I think, given what you were responding to/how you responded.

    George Kendall: The same complexity goes for the Conservatives, and we know how well our alliance with them worked out. While there are some we can work with, there will be a lot more angry at us ‘diluting’ what they want.
    Any kind of coalition needs to be handled very carefully and from a position of healthy mistrust!

    It will be interesting to see if Tory unity holds once details of whatever Brexit actually means start to emerge. Shouldn’t we also be looking to win over the ‘nicer’ Tories? (With the same healthy mistrust).

    I’m not sure who these ‘nice’ Labour people are, btw. New Labour, the people who wanted to bring in ID cards, and lock people up for 90 days without charge…?
    Or the people who opposed AV, because FPTP had worked for them so well in the past?
    Or the people still rejoicing at the Lib Dems being mauled in the 2015 GE, even though that handed the keys to No 10 to Cameron outright?
    In the run-up to the 2010 GE, I didn’t want the Tories to win, but was heartily glad to see the back of Brown and co.

    Matthew: You’re right. I have friends who are Labour supporters and they can’t get their heads round why I’m not. They believe Labour has the monopoly on caring.

    A final thought: the old canard about ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ only ever works while the common enemy is a threat.

  • Nick Collins 20th Sep '16 - 12:53pm

    “An easy mistake to make, I think, given what you were responding to/how you responded.”

    Well not really, CassieB, unless you assume that anyone who disagrees with you or who points out that the LibDems have, to a large extent, been the authors of their own destruction must be a member of the Labour Party. I know that there has been an increase in Labour membership, since 2015, but I don’t think it has been so large as to justify that assumption.

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