Iraq war becomes key issue in Labour leadership battle

By staff writers
May 23, 2010

The Iraq war has become a central issue in the Labour Party's leadership contest, with candidates who previously supported it seeking to distance themselves from the decision to invade the country.

But they have failed to impress opponents of the war, who accuse them of opportunism.

The former Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, said he now believes that “the war was wrong”. He argued yesterday (22 May) that, "It was a mistake. On the information we had, we shouldn’t have prosecuted the war”.

He added, “It was an error for which we as a country paid a heavy price, and for which many people paid with their lives”.

His leadership rival Ed Miliband, the former Energy Secretary, made milder criticisms of the war, suggesting that international inspectors should have been given more time to find out whether the Iraqi regime owned weapons of mass destruction.

“What I am not saying is that the war was undertaken for the wrong motives,” he explained, “But what I am very clear about is what my position was at the time and the way I look at it in retrospect”.

Neither Balls nor Ed Miliband were MPs at the time of the decision to invade Iraq, although Balls was a senior adviser to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.

Anti-war activist Rose Gentle, whose son was killed in Iraq while fighting in the British army, criticised the timing of the candidates' comments. "It's an insult to the families just now,” she added.

John McDonnell, who is also standing for the Labour leadership and has been a longstanding opponent of the war, welcomed his rivals' “road to Damascus conversion”. But he said that lives might have been saved if they had shown the “courage of their convictions” and spoken out at the time.

McDonnell urged them to demonstrate the sincerity of their change of heart by opposing the war in Afghanistan. But when questioned, Balls declined to support the imminent withdrawal of troops from the country.

But Ed Miliband's brother David Miliband, who is also standing for the leadership and is widely considered to be the frontrunner, repeated his defence of the Iraq invasion.

"I voted for the war in Iraq to uphold UN resolutions about weapons of mass destruction,” he insisted. But he added that he would not have voted for the war if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. David Miliband was Foreign Secretary until earlier this month, meaning he is more closely associated than his rivals with the Labour government's unpopular military decisions.

He seemed keen to avoid the possibility of Iraq becoming a central issue in the leadership election, insisting that “While Iraq was a source of division in the past, it doesn't need to be a source of division in the future”.

Of the two other leadership candidates, Andy Burnham has not yet criticised the war, although he was not an MP at the time of the decision to invade Iraq. Diane Abbott opposed the war from the beginning and, like McDonnell, voted against it in the House of Commons in 2003.

The result of the Labour Party leadership election will be announced on 25 September.


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