January 6, 2016 by Paul Goldsmith
Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with Stop the War is transparent and he should continue it. But the organisation itself must bear a lot more scrutiny if he does.
During the reshuffle of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet, Jeremy Corbyn is said to have told Pat McFadden, his Shadow Minister for Europe that he thought McFadden’s criticism of the response of the Stop the War coalition to the Paris terror attacks was an attack on Corbyn himself (as Corbyn used to chair Stop the War).
It should be remembered that an article was written on the Stop the War website which said that “Paris reaps the whirlwind for Western military intervention” and this was advertised in a tweet.McFadden summed up his response to that article and tweet and what Corbyn told him when he sacked him yesterday – as “me saying terrorists are entirely responsible for their action, that no-one forces anyone to kill innocent people in Paris, to blow up the London Underground, to behead innocent aid workers, (and) that when I say they are entirely responsible for that, he clearly interpreted that as an attack on him,” he added.
If true, this adds to the furore before Christmas about Jeremy Corbyn attending the Stop the War Christmas Party and praising the organisation as “one of the most important democratic campaigns of modern times.” Whether McFadden’s comments are true or not, Corbyn’s relationship with Stop the War needs to be looked at, as it raises many questions over the responsibilities of the leader of a major political party.
The relationship between the Labour Leader and Stop the War is, in my opinion, actually one of the few areas of Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ that we should actually get used to. Corbyn has used this term (‘new politics’) to justify everything he has done, telling journalists and critics they they need to get used to these new rules as and when he writes them. It just so happens on the issue of maintaining his relationship with Stop the War he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, so he may as well stick with them, for integrity’s sake.
Jeremy Corbyn was a backbench MP of the highest order for 32 years before he became a Labour Party leader. Every single newspaper failed to find a single constituent with a bad word to say about his work as Islington North MP. The nature of the UK’s parliamentary system meant however that he had little influence on our political culture as a backbench MP with no chance of gaining ministerial appointment. Our election system means that he had to stay with Labour to maintain his place in Parliament, whereas under proportional representation he could have joined a different party as his disillusionment with New Labour grew. This is why the creation of Stop the War in 2001 and Jeremy Corbyn’s subsequent accession to the Presidency made sense. In our pluralist democracy, pressure groups have the opportunity to influence politics, and, given Corbyn’s views were ignored in Parliament, he picked the organisation that most represented his deeply held views and it gave him a voice far more influential than before.
During the leadership election campaign, he never wavered from what he termed as ‘pacifist’ views. Even under the most searching of questions, he insisted that he could think of no time he would ever use nuclear weapons, and then went back through the UK’s myriad involvements in military policy, arguing what he would have done instead. He never wavered from this, despite it being an area in which occasionally he would meet hostility at the Labour Leader hustings. So it is a genuinely held view. Corbyn’s reshuffle seems to be based around making sure he is supported on his foreign and defence policy, which is so important to him. Hence the change in Shadow Defence Secretary to Emily Thornberry and Hilary Benn being allegedly told he cannot disagree with Corbyn from the front bench again as he did in the Syria debate. One could even argue that this is a “Stop the War” shuffle of the Shadow Cabinet, as the organisation’s shadow definitely looms large over it.
Let’s not forget that we have also had in the past few months the Shadow Minister Catherine West telling Stop the War they would be ‘consulted’ over Labour policy over Syria. There is simply no doubt that if it is possible to be an ‘insider’ pressure group to an opposition party, Stop the War are that.
So what’s the problem? Well, it can essentially be boiled down to who Stop the War actually are, and what they actually want. Set up in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as the USA and UK announced they were going into Afghanistan, they were set up to campaign against a cycle of war developing in response to 9/11. Their high-point was the million strong march in February 2003 against the Iraq War. Since neither of those wars were stopped, Stop the War were reduced to sniping at the sidelines whenever military action was proposed.
It ought to be remembered that Stop the War are a coalition. They are not one group. They are run by hard left activists from the Communist Party, Respect and other leftist groups and so they have less control over their members and their output than you might imagine from a normal organisation. The controversial blog after Paris was written by a member, but was not the words of the Stop the War leadership, hence it was removed quite quickly.
The major question about Stop the War is really whether they should more accurately be named “Stop the West”. The organisation that has campaigned so hard against Western military intervention has been happy to stand by whilst Vladimir Putin extends Russia into Ukraine or enters Syria. There were no demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy after those actions.
If you aggregate the campaigns Stop the War (and Corbyn) have run, they can be boiled down to West wrong, anti-West right. Or, more simply, they are ‘peace activists who take sides’. This means they are only interested in peace if it comes after the side they support wins. An example of this are the (mostly well-meaning) ‘peace activists’ who go into Gaza to shield children from Israeli missiles whilst doing nothing about the Hamas missiles being fired over their shoulders at Israeli children they have no interest in shielding.
You could argue that Stop the War tend to support the underdog. But Russia isn’t an underdog. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Ken Livingstone and George Galloway have a long history of supporting whoever is challenging the West, and in the case of the latter two, both Stop the War veterans, are happy to take Russia’s and Iran’s money to talk and in Galloway’s case present on their propaganda TV stations.
Stop the War are really like any other pressure group. They are trying to influence policy to match their beliefs. But they don’t have to be accountable to the British public for what they are asking for. This is why it important to understand that they no longer need to use traditional campaigns – now they have an insider. Someone who can get six questions at the Prime Minister every week at PMQs. Someone heavily involved now in setting policy for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Jeremy Corbyn is not going to drop this association now, and neither do I think he should.
We just need to be aware of what it means.