Labour leadership: neither recrimination nor 'moving on' is the answer

By Jill Segger
May 24, 2010

Nominations for the Labour leadership candidates opened today. The five men and one woman who have entered the contest each need 33 backers from among their fellow MPs. Some of them will fail to achieve this and whatever one's view of them as individual politicians, that is a pity, because the debate needs to be as wide as possible.

The process is long, with the hustings taking place during June and July, after which the various electoral colleges of the party will begin to vote, the result being announced on 25 September during the Labour Conference.

All the candidates had to address Labour's failure to connect with its core electorate and most of them have done so in a manner which gives hope that lessons have been learned from the mistakes and weaknesses of the New Labour “project” which is now well and truly over.

But the manner in which two of the candidates have dealt with the Iraq war typifies what can so easily go wrong when any organisation is trying to deal with catastrophic failure – recrimination on the one hand and a glossing over of that failure on the other.

John McDonnell has pointed the finger at his fellow candidates Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, neither of whom were MPs when the decision to go to war was taken. Sneering at their post-war change of heart as a “road to Damascus conversion” and accusing them of lacking “the courage of their convictions” to speak out earlier (there might be a contradiction in those two concepts) does not do much to address and begin a process of rectification of the mindset which had such a terrible outcome. His tone - belligerent and a trifle bilious – suggests a man who will wrap himself in his own purity at the expense of constructive engagement.

It is notable that Diane Abbott, the other anti-war candidate, has refrained from personal attacks although she has made the point that “unlike the frontrunners” she voted against the war. It is unclear who she considers to be the frontrunners – among pro-war candidates, only David Miliband and Andy Burnham were MPs in 2003.

Ed Miliband has been unequivocal, believing that UN weapons inspectors were “not given enough time” and that the government's decision to back George Bush led to “a catastrophic loss of trust”.

At the other end of the spectrum, David Miliband has expressed the view that the party must “move on” - a concept with unfortunate connotations of amateur psychology and the 'self-help' bookshelf. No doubt there are many on the Blairite wing of the party who would agree with him. But to seek to forget a decision to engage in an illegal and immoral war which, not least because of its criminal lack of planning for peace and reconstruction, has done such immeasurable harm to the people of Iraq and has left Britain hated through the Islamic world, is as unrealistic as it is immoral. For a Labour government to follow a bellicose and right-wing US president into war on a false prospectus has damaged trust in this country and no dialogue which seeks to sweep that disastrous decision under the carpet can have any hope of success.

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