The future of the left since 1884

Labour has never been a pacifist party – we shouldn’t start now

Although we face at least another five years in opposition, Labour – if we are smart – can play an important role in shaping the security, defence and international policies of our country. Not least because the Tories are bitterly...


Although we face at least another five years in opposition, Labour – if we are smart – can play an important role in shaping the security, defence and international policies of our country. Not least because the Tories are bitterly divided on Europe and elsewhere in this area – they are split on foreign and defence policy, and on international development spending. Influence, then, is ours for the taking.

There are four major areas where the stance we adopt can make a difference to the outcome: Europe, NATO, Trident and military intervention against ISIL. The way we approach all four issues will also impact on our credibility as a potential party of government come 2020.

Let’s take Europe first. The EU referendum Bill has now been sent from the Commons to the Lords and is likely to gain Royal Assent before the end of the year. It seems that despite opposition on their back benches, Cameron and Osborne are intent on holding the referendum in 2016 rather than 2017.

I am delighted that our new leader Jeremy Corbyn has now endorsed the position set out by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, Shadow Europe Minister Pat McFadden and Alan Johnson, who leads the Labour Yes campaign – Labour will continue to make a clear, positive case for the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union.

It has been the longstanding position of the Labour Party to work positively within the institutions of the European Union since 1988, when Jacques Delors spoke at the TUC. This referendum is our opportunity to remind people of that, and make a positive case for social and employment rights, and environmental protection.

Some trade union leaders and a vocal handful of Eurosceptic backbenchers are tempted to play a dangerous game on this issue, threatening to line up with UKIP if Cameron comes back with a weakening of social protection. Leaving aside that such an agreed outcome from the other 27 states is highly unlikely, this would be self-defeating, self-indulgent political nonsense. If the UK was to leave the EU, all those protections and much more besides would no longer exist for British workers.

We enjoy higher standards of health and safety in the workplace, four weeks’ of guaranteed annual leave, maternity rights and many other rights and protections only because Tony Blair’s government ended John Major’s opt out on the European Social Charter. If Cameron does come back with a deal which weakens the rights of British workers, the answer is not to withdraw from the EU. On the contrary, it makes the case even more strongly for staying in, and working positively to restore any reduction in British workers’ rights or working standards brought about by the Tories.

Next, to NATO. Labour has never been a pacifist party. Even in the brief three year period in the 1930′s when the party was led by George Lansbury, Labour was officially committed to national defence and to the League of Nations. Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin played a decisive role in creating the institutions of the modern era including the United Nations and NATO, and we have always been pro-NATO Party. Indeed, our 2015 General Election manifesto – on which all 232 Labour MPs were elected – made explicitly clear our support for NATO.

Some attempt to cast it as a relic, but NATO remains vital for peace and security in Europe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Warsaw Pact, the Alliance was successfully transformed from a Cold War defence institution into a political entity, now recognised as a regional security organisation by the United Nations. It has enlarged to include the former GDR, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania. Many other countries worldwide including EU members Sweden, Finland, Austria, Malta and the Irish Republic have partnership arrangements with NATO.

NATO needs a government committed to collective security in deeds as well as words, and Labour in opposition can show its willingness to support the cause. Closer institutional co-operation between the EU and NATO is blocked due to divisions over Cyprus. Labour could support the current efforts to find a political solution on the island and press Turkey for a more positive attitude to EU-NATO co-operation, for example. We should also give solidarity to efforts to help frontline NATO countries like Poland and the Baltic States in the face of increasing threats and aggressive behaviour by Putin’s Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere. And we should support strengthened ties and co-operation with Sweden and Finland.

That means supporting the 2% of GDP spending target agreed at the 2014 Newport summit, and policies to support our armed forces based on the Covenant introduced by Labour.

Thirdly, Trident. There have always been strong emotions and divisions in the party on the issue of nuclear weapons. Parliament will vote on the Maingate decision to go ahead with building four Trident submarines early next year. The 232 Labour MPs were elected in May on a manifesto commitment to support Trident and a Continuous at Sea Deterrent (CASD). There is still some debate about whether CASD could be achieved with three rather than four submarines, but our mandate from our manifesto is clear: we should continue our commitment to support Trident, and simultaneously press for the other part of our manifesto – a commitment to further international negotiations to rid the world as a whole of nuclear weapons.

Finally, Labour must consider how to respond to the global threat of ISIL. Labour should reflect on the legacy of Attlee and our patriotic, internationalist and humanitarian interventionist traditions. We must recognise that there is no military or moral logic in confining action against this group to Iraq, when they do not respect border lines on maps and have their headquarters in Raqqah, Syria. But we also need to recognise that the main cause of the Syrian refugee exodus is not ISIL but the barrel bombing by Assad’s airforce. The international community, including our party, has failed the Syrian people who desperately need safe corridors and No Fly Zones.

There will be divisions within the party on many of these issues. I hope all of us who vote with our consciences – and for the manifesto policies on which we were elected – will be given the respect we deserve.

Mike Gapes MP

Mike Gapes is Labour and Co-operative MP for Ilford South.

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