Starmer is going much further than any previous leader in outlawing anti-war campaigners writes Richard Price, Leyton and Wanstead CLP.
In a strategy document leaked in February 2021, Keir Starmer was counselled to wrap himself in the Union Jack: “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc. give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.” Former serving officer, Clive Lewis MP, immediately spotted where this was heading, commenting: “There’s a better way to build social cohesion than moving down the track of the nativist right.”
But while all this flag waving was supposed to appease Red Wall voters – deemed to be socially conservative and pro-military – and put clear red, white and blue water between the new regime and the left of the party – focus groups told a different tale. They found the clunky patriotism inauthentic, while it was a positive turn-off for many younger voters. Until the autumn of 2021, Labour made no headway at all, only picking up when scandal began to engulf Boris Johnson. Crucially, the new patriotism did nothing to address the economic discontents that fed Brexit and the Tory victory in 2019 in left-behind towns and cities.
Had Russia not invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the flags might have been quietly decommissioned. But with Johnson channelling Churchill, Starmer and his Labour First allies saw an opportunity to slap the anti-war movement. Britain wasn’t itself at war, but the PLP was put on a war footing.
Although we’re told Starmer marched against the Iraq War, while Luke Akehurst remains just about the only person in Britain who still thinks the invasion was a great idea, they saw a common enemy in the Stop the War Coalition, which mobilised the largest demonstration in British history on 15th February 2003. Eleven Labour MPs were threatened with withdrawal of the whip for signing a StWC statement on the war in Ukraine that was critical of NATO.
Starmer went further, rebranding Labour as “the party of NATO”, and pledged to take action against any Labour MPs challenging the party’s “unshakeable support” for the alliance. Tories meanwhile accused Starmer of hypocrisy, pointing out that when he was secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers in the 1990s, it had called for Labour to “adopt a non-nuclear, non-aligned defence policy as the precondition for the preservation and extension of human rights”.
Over at the New Statesman, Philip Collins purred: “Slowly but certainly, Keir Starmer is reclaiming the Labour Party’s own history”. But the NATO that the Attlee government took Britain into was not ostensibly a nuclear alliance – it wouldn’t describe itself as such until 2010 – and Britain’s nuclear weapons programme was carried out in secret, without a debate in Parliament or the Labour Party.
Labour has always had pro-imperialist and pro-peace wings since 1900. For much of that history, internal differences over war and peace were treated as issues of conscience. No disciplinary action was taken against anti-war MPs including Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald during the First World War. Anti-war groups like the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Union of Democratic Control were closely associated with the ILP. And while this opposition was marginalised for much of 1914-18, by the 1929 General Election, 51 former conscientious objectors or anti-war campaigners were elected as Labour MPs. There was a strong anti-war tradition among non-conformists from which Labour drew much of its support.
Labour was opposed to rearmament until 1937, and no attempt was made to remove pacifists and anti-imperialists from the party. This tolerance even extended into the Second World War. By March 1940, 90 CLPs had passed motions critical of the war at a time of infinitely greater national danger than today. Labour pacifist MPs were allowed to meet unhindered in Westminster. Although the ILP had pursued a semi-pacifist policy for much of the war, no block was put on its MPs re-joining Labour in 1947.
While four Labour MPs were expelled for pro-Soviet sympathies in 1948-9 and the Socialist Fellowship proscribed in 1951 during the Korean War, in 1956 Labour for the first time officially opposed Britain at war during the Suez crisis. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the Parliamentary CND branch had 132 members, including Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock. In March 2003, in Labour’s largest ever parliamentary rebellion, 139 MPs voted against war in Iraq. None were disciplined.
Starmer’s militarisation of the PLP, and by extension the party as a whole, is taking us into uncharted territory in which freedom of speech is dramatically eroded and the wing of the party traditionally seen as its conscience is regarded as the enemy within.