A SPECTRE is haunting new Labour

Andy Newman

The planned launch of the SPECTRE political party by the military families opposing the Iraq war raises a number of political questions.

Of course the electoral process is open to anyone who wishes to use it, and the dignified and powerful speech by Reg Keys, whose son fell in Iraq , at the count in Sedgefield where he stood against the Prime Minister, was one of the highlights of the general election. Both Reg and Rose Gentle made a significant impact by challenging the Labour war mongers at the polls, and the continued development of the challenge to the Iraq occupations by the Military Families is to be welcomed. They are opening space for a debate about the role of the British armed forces that has not been aired since the 1940s.

There is a contradiction in the real world that soldiers are BOTH workers in uniform AND agents of imperialist oppression. Surely it is also true that service in the armed forces includes BOTH heroism and self sacrifice AND bullying, heirarchical and oppressive relationships and right wing nonsense. So it is reasonable for military families to both be proud of the children, and opposed to the war. The war has opened a can of worms for the military establishment. The military families campaign strengthens a debate about the role and purpose of the British armed forces that hasn't happened since 1945. and the duty of care that politicians have for army lives.

So far the anti-war movement has more or less successfully walked the tightrope of calling for the immediate withdrawal of US and UK troops, which would be a defeat for the imperialist armies, and expressing solidarity with the individual soldiers who are acting as cannon fodder. This recognises that the choice on offer, the actual debate, is not between proletarian internationalism and imperialism, but about whether or not the British state wages aggressive war as an uncritical ally of the neo-cons in the White House. The military families have helped to open that debate.

In their own words, “Spectre will comprise of an ‘umbrella’ support group of Independents. Founder members and candidates will be drawn from bereaved families of loved ones lost in the controversial Iraq conflict. The initial target seats we intend to challenge will be those of Government Ministers who supported and continue to support the unlawful occupation of Iraq . This may take the form of any forthcoming by-election up to and including the next General Election.”

This immediately raises the question that SPECTRE is being formed to pose the single question of the war at the ballot box, but will therefore presumably also be standing against other anti-war parties? The Green party? The Scottish Socialist party? Respect?

This is further complicated by the fact that the political basis of SPECTRE is problematic. They say: “We would like to stress from the outset that we are not anti-military and we do indeed support our troops wherever they may serve as they have to fulfil their duties without question. Spectre does have family members who still continue to serve in the Forces. What we do oppose is the reckless use of our Armed Forces in an Iraq conflict based on deceit surrounding weapons of mass destruction. An occupation which flouted International Law and was not supported by the United Nations.”

There are several problems with these policy positions.

Firstly, most left wing and peace movement activists will strongly disagree with the need to support the troops “wherever they may serve as they have to fulfil their duties without question.” With parachute regiment soldiers still at liberty despite their perpetrating a massacre on the streets of Derry in 1972, can we really be expetced to support that statement? Left and progressive candidates cannot be expected to stand down in favour of candidates who are so uncritical of the role of the armed forces.

Secondly, the policy position only mentions Iraq , but what about Afghanistan, and other places where British troops are deployed? The opposition of SPECTRE to the Iraq war is based upon the lies about WMD and the lack of a UN resolution. But have they no reservations about the US invasion of Afghanistan , and the appalling quagmire in Hellmand province where British troops are involved in serious fighting? Basing opposition to the war on Iraq on its illegality alone is inadequate, as even had it been legal, it would still have been an immoral exercise of imperial brigandry.

This brings me to a third problem, which is that they will have rings run round them if they base arguments on the illegality of the occupation of Iraq . The invasions may or may not have been illegal, but the occupation has probably always been legal, sanctioned by the conventions of international law that a conquering power always has sovereignty (and therefore responsibility for the population), and subsequently sovereignty has been passed to an internationally recognised Iraqi government (however co-dependent it is with the occupiers), democratically elected and who have asked the Americans to stay, and what is more the presence of US and British troops in Iraq has in fact now been sanctioned by the UN. Like it or not, the continued presence of British troops in Iraq is completely legal. In any event an argument based upon legality is likely to quickly become convoluted.

But an even greater problem is that SPECTRE has no policies on any other issue but Iraq . It is at one level true that the crisis brought on by the war and opposition to the war is one of the most important issues underpinning British politics, but immigration, the continued erosion of public services, the environmental crisis, and the lack of affordable housing are issues of equal weight. A general election decides the next government, and is hard to subvert to single issue campaigns – however important that single issue. What is more, as SPECTRE itself illustrates, opposition to the war does not necessarily imply any wider critique of society. Michael Ancram, a leading Tory, calls for immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq for example.

The relationship between SPECTRE and the rest of the anti-war movement also raises some questions that do not have transparent answers. The choice of name seems eerily similar to RESPECT. In so far as RESPECT sought to be the political expression of the anti-war movement the very existence of SPECTRE suggests that RESPECT has failed in that objective. What is more the relatively right wing attitude of SPECTRE to the military illustrates the degree to which opposition to the war has not led to wider radicalisation. The only previous example of a political party based upon expressing the views of serving soldiers, sailors and airman, the Common Wealth, which won the 1943 Eddisbury by-election and the Chelmsford by-election in 1945, was an explicitly socialist party.

Will Respect be standing aside for Spectre, and have the membership of Respect any opportunity to express a view on this? Is Spectre the electoral _expression of the Military Families Against War, or is it a separate initiative? If it is part and parcel of the MFAW campaign, then the involvement of socialists like Andrew Burgin and Chris Nineham with MFAW sharply raises the question of what approach socialists should take to SPECTRE.

How will other socialists that contest elections, and the Green Party, respond to an anti-war electoral challenge to New Labour that stands on such a narrow platform, and with such an uncritical view of the armed forces?

There is a difficulty in bringing this single issue campaigns to the ballot box, where it inevitably compete with other political viewpoints and organisations that would otherwise be wholly sympathetic to the anti-war movement – even more so as these elections will be conducted under first past the post, and other organistions or parties may have candidates with better local standing that the bereaved families. By posing a single issue electoral challenge there is a danger that SPECTRE could actually prove divisive to the anti-war movement.



September 2006

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