Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party

In 1939, in order to be excused from joining the war, Mussolini sent Hitler such a ludicrously long list of materials he needed that the Fuhrer simply waved them away. The hope was to jump in a few months later, win the war, and then claim the credit from the good old Berliner fascist.

I thought about that as I watched the horror on Ed Miliband’s face as he realised that he had, in fact, defeated the government on the matter of launching strikes against Assad; that rather than appearing to be the strong leader who had forced concession after concession from a war-monger, whom he could then criticise for his efforts while satisfying the undercurrent in his party longing for an intervention, he had forced Britain to abandon the principle of aiding the Syrians through military measures. He wanted to have his cake, eat it, and then serve up the excrement to the unsuspecting British public.

I have, as a consequence, left the Labour Party.

The Looming Legacy

“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty,” Clement Attlee told the Labour Party conference at Southport, in 1934. “We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country. We say we want to see put on the statute book something which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”

True to his word, Attlee visited the volunteer British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, in 1937, who conjured the “Major Attlee Company” in his honour. But the most inspiring moment was perhaps in 1939 when the Republican government in Spain was close to collapse, Barcelona nearly overrun; the British public, resting in that awkward winter between Chamberlain’s announcement of “Peace For Our Time” and Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia and Moravia, had less stomach for war than in two decades; and there was expected to be a general election in a years’ time. And in spite of all that weighing in on his political capital, Attlee stood at a podium in Whitechapel to unveil Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to raise funds for the Republican war effort. The goal was to persuade working-class Londoners, for whom the entry fee was only a pair of shoes, of the urgency facing their Spanish comrades.


Clement Attlee unveiling Picasso’s “Guernica” at Whitechapel, 1939.

By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he had grasped perhaps a little too confidently Hitler’s commitment to an old man to a World Peace Conference under the chairing of Roosevelt. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.

In his will, Lansbury gently requested that his ashes be scattered at sea because “although I love England very dearly … I am a convinced internationalist.” Neither his idealism nor Attlee’s pragmatism compromised their humanitarian impulses, which had simply been schooled in different ways. Neither undermined the basic instinct that transcended the trivialities of national barriers, languages and economies. Though both saw that the better world could be much better realised as a webbed community, only Attlee understood what the Tory benches meant when they shouted, “Tell that to Hitler!”

The Wretching Legacy

Nostalgia isn’t any good for anyone. The historian betrays his discipline if it livens him up too much; I am not attempting to draw a bland parallel between the Republican government and the rebel forces fighting Assad. The civil wars in Spain and Syria both began as struggles for pluralism, morphing into proxy wars from foreign powers with the liberal democracies sitting idly by – but we will never know how the Spanish war may have evolved if Attlee had won parliament over to his cause of ending the “farce of non-intervention”, as he called it. Would the Republicans have won? Or is it possible that, had Britain and France sent troops to aid the Republicans, the Germans would have doubled their efforts and in so doing brought war to the allies and defeated them?

We can never know, of course, and these sorts of questions don’t tend to be especially fruitful. But counter-factuals aren’t wildly different to the speculations filling the columns of every wannabe “expert” on Syria right this second; we must not presume that simply because one believes bombing Assad will help the secularists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels and the millions of displaced civilians that he is right to do so, or that those who oppose the methods he proposes are isolationists or hysterical “anti-imperialists”.

I’m a bit of a puritan, you see – motive is everything. A right action performed for the wrong reason is morally frivolous; equally, I’ll forgive a mistake made by an honest man.

So after Cameron agreed to publish the legal case for war, and then the Joint Intelligence Committee’s evidence for Assad’s responsibility, and then to work through the UN as far as the Security Council would allow, and then for a second vote after the UN reported its findings, why still did Ed Miliband vote against the government?

Did he fear that strikes against Assad’s weren’t worth the civilians they might kill, or that we should find a more humane route of assisting the democrat rebels with the long-term prospect of bringing down another Baathist dictator? Was it the imminenscy of a jihadist bloodbath if he falls? Did Miliband, instead, call for open borders for Syrian refugees and billions of pounds of international aid to be sent to those who remained?

All of these positions would have been honourable, and though I might have disagreed with them would at least have been comforted by the prospect of a principled leader.

With this in mind, allow us to consult the reasons he emailed to party members:

  1. We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;
  2. There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;
  3. The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;
  4. There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;
  5. Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

The only man of importance still uncritically recycling Assad’s narrative, Vladimir Putin, holds a veto on the Security Council; I will not believe that a man who taught at Harvard cannot see the moral farce of a man selling tanks to its only non-Soviet ally, to kill children, advising on the principles of judicial legitimacy. As he well knows, no serious politician could bring this program into the Commons. Miliband has whipped his party into the stables of Moscow, by accident, and is now telling his passengers to enjoy the sights.

Not a single Labour MP voted with the government on Thursday. Not one. Their amendment failed; and so when the government’s motion was proposed to the house, it became a choice between the principle to support military intervention and to rule it out entirely. Ed Miliband grabbed his opportunity, and he reaped his rewards.

Unapologetic – and unhumbled – by his party’s victory over Cameron, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander appeared on the BBC to say:

If [Cameron] was now to return to the Commons, and say, “Well, actually, the President of the United States has decided to go to the Congress, I’ve changed my mind about what Parliament was saying and about what the British people were saying,” I think that would weigh very heavily on the ability for him to convince the public or parliament that his judgement was sound. [Emphasis mine.]

If the decision were a principled one, Alexander would not be invoking public opinion into the vindication of his leader’s decision; and it’s beginning to make sense that the Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis, would happen to be the architect of Miliband’s project for old-school Tory paternalism, “One Nation”.

And this when the need for international solidarity has never been so great. The working-class electorate in Britain is – as Marx defined it, at any rate – shrinking, and labour power passing overseas. This is especially true of the Arab world whose economies are based heavily on undercutting European manufacturing, leading to artificially depressed wages and living standards. In times of war, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering that now has pushed northern territories of Syria into the open embrace of clerical fascism. Instead, Labour does nothing.

There’s some hysteria out there that Miliband has allied himself with the isolationism of UKIP – but that is rather to miss the point. One can be a patriot and an internationalist, because it’s possible, as Orwell put it, to wish for the best for those who bring colour into your daily life but to contextualise them as one school of art among many. One cannot, however, be a populist and an internationalist, because the moment you put vote-counting before international solidarity then you cease to truly believe in the equality of nations, and instead leave it dependent on the arbitrary whims and fantasies of mob rule.

An Abdication From Giving A Shit

For once, Miliband has it right that the vote on Thursday is not an invitation for “soul-searching” (hopefully not to excuse himself from the doctor’s invitation to Syria). But what’s a party without its members?

Looking back it’s odd to think that it was Tony Benn’s speech at the Oxford Union last year – a man who has otherwise not said anything sensible for two decades – that confirmed my faith in the Labour Party. When asked why he stayed a member of a party so mutated by its “Thatcherite tendencies” he responded, in a tone of slightly self-righteous victim-hood, that Labour was nothing if not a coalition. The best that one could hope for was that those closest to sharing his views would lead the party forward.

But LabourList revealed the results of a rather telling poll on the day of the vote, one which deep down I knew I was losing as I voted:

And what reasons did the readership provide for this landslide hostility to punitive strikes?

81.8% of LabourList readers said that Labour should only support action backed by the UN (as opposed to Miliband’s position, which involves evidence presented to the UN and debate by the Security Council, but doesn’t imply support from Russia/China is needed for military action). Only 18.2% said that Labour should back action without the UN.

I wish the likes of MPs Tom Harris, Ben Bradshaw and Megg Mun all the best of luck, anamolies though they are: they recognised the importance to support Syrian civilians, whatever form that should take. But I cannot overcome the apathy to greet Putin, Assad, Nasrallah and Khamenei dining on Friday to celebrate Britain’s moral lethargy, Asma even on a diet (because of all the children she’s been eating).

It is regrettable, it is sad, but decisive: the Labour Party, whose worst leader was said to be the Ramsay MacDonald who still had the guts to abandon the Fabians when they refused to condemn the Boer War, has fallen to those Western narcissists who have stolen the name “socialist” and extracted its heart. It is a wicked twist of fate for those of us now reluctantly named “liberal interventionists” that Blair, who abolished Clause IV from Labour’s constitution, would appear to be the last internationalist of Labour leaders; that the stumbling Red Ed should choose party politics over the death of non-English speaking children, for whom he clearly shares no more affinity than the average Joe.

The deeply humanitarian principles of the party have either melted away or slipped into the manifesto: the would-be programme of a “grown up” political party. One has only to ask, I suppose, why it was able to last for so long.

And the gong has been struck; it is the sound of the disenchantment of socialism.


8 Comments on “Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party”

  1. I must say that I disagree with you:

    -Mostly according to the syrian friends I know, inside and outside Syria, sunnis, alawites, kurds, christian and secularists, with and against Assad, with personal stories to tell and many tragedies that also made me remember Spain in 1936-1939

    -Also according to what has happened in the “liberated areas” of places such as Aleppo, where christians didn’t go to fight and now are gladly joining Assad’s forces to try to avoid extinction or ethnic cleansing (search what bishops and priests say about how rebels behave with christians), or in Kurdistan, where kurds say the same than many others (Assad oppressed us, but these rebels want our extermination) or the alawis out of their influential mountain areas, or the secularists, who are forced into following islam at risk of loosing everything.

    Starting by freedom and dignity and finishing by the head. Same or worst than under the regime?

    -Also knowing that bombing Syria won’t benefit anyone except the islamist radicals (who will celebrate any “collateral death” as a victory, profiting from ppl’s anger for the western killing of innocents) and Israel, who must b praying for a silly retaliation missile attack over their ground to take the territory around Golan Heights, forever threatening the plateau that leads to Damascus, and cutting off Hizbullah’s main supply routes…. and from there to feel free to kill the idea of a future Palestine State goes one little step… maybe consisting in giving Jordan most of Palestinian-inhabited West Bank and keeping the best, with undisputed access to Jordan River and Lake Tiberiades…. forever. Brilliant.

    -So you agree in punishing Assad, the butcher, and lead a military intervention because Syrian rebels appear to you like spanish republicans of 1930’s? … honestly, bud… what these rebels are bringing to the lands they dominate is WORST than what the Assads gave to Syrians form decades.

    Hafez Al-Assad killed thousands of islamists in Hama. Estimated 20.000. It’s true. And his son has led an army that has killed many more, but this time on a civil war state.

    As I feel it, with an ideologically and military weakened “FSA” even sponsored by the west unable to deal by itself with the islamist threat and the kurdish (and most surely alawite) aim for authonomy or independence in the remote case that Assad is toppled down…. WHAT KIND OF FUTURE RELIABLE EXPECTATION CAN YOU OFFER TO ME APART OF BRINGING AFGHANISTAN TO MEDITERRANEAN SHORES, EXPANDING THE SHIT WIDER INTO LEBANON, TURKEY AND IRAQ, WHILE ISRAEL, IRAN AND THE GULF NATIONS WAIT AND SEE WHAT THEY GET AT THE END???

    Many times you don’t need to be a conservative or a leftist to look properly at things as they happen.

    • Also check: “To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool’s errand. In a conflict that has settled into a deadly if familiar pattern – and in a region close to boiling point – it inevitably will introduce a powerful element of uncertainty. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable.”

    • No I’m sorry – I must have written this article very badly because that’s definitely not what I was saying! I was focusing mainly on the issue for me about the British Labour Party, which I think did not, as you have done, weigh up how the strikes might affect matters on the ground before coming to their conclusion to oppose them. It was simply that they didn’t care whether or not they would work.

      As it happens, I think Western leaders have gotten themselves into a terrible, terrible mess about how to act – to have put themselves into a position of “strikes against chemical weapons or nothing” seems absurd, not least because it will do absolutely nothing to bring the war to a humane end.

      To address what you say about the jihadist groups – what do you think about this article here?

      She says that from touring the country she thinks that the threat from the jihadists is exaggerated: they’re very strong in the north of the country, but that even here there have been reports of uprisings against the Islamic State.

      My biggest fear about strikes against Assad is the same as yours: that extremist groups will take hold or, worse, fight each other into Islamic fiefdoms. But that can’t be the best we can hope for it, can it?

      In the south, groups with the support of the Jordanian government have made significant inroads against both Assad and the jihadist groups (as in Damascus yesterday afternoon). Lacking the kind of support they get in the grassroots in Afghanistan and Iraq, once beaten the Islamists will almost certainly not be able to come back. The same can be said of the north, where the only reason that al-Nusra and ISIS have been able to grow is because a) the poverty the war has caused and b) the FSA has been so isolated, without any comparable arms. Many of the “secularists” only have pacts with them against Assad because they don’t have the strength to fight them; and I find it hard to believe that defections to the regime are sincere. If they see a bolstered non-Islamist army, they’re bound to come back.

      If we can offer real support to the democrats around Aleppo, and to the Kurds, while depriving Assad of his supplies from Russia and Iran with a no-fly zone, surely that could make some progress?

      I don’t know. It’s great to be able to talk with someone like you who can actually see what’s happening on the ground. Most people just look through some political spin and hope for the best.

  2. […] Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party → […]

  3. Poumista says:

    […] in protest at Ed Miliband’s betrayal of the Syrian people, and his post (entitled “Not in My Name“) on his reasons for leaving is absolutely superb. Here are some sample passages from the […]

  4. […] in protest at Ed Miliband’s betrayal of the Syrian people, and his post (entitled “Not in My Name“) on his reasons for leaving is absolutely superb. Here are some sample passages from the […]

  5. sackcloth and ashes says:

    An excellent, and eloquent post. You express my own sense of disgust far better than I could.

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