Chilcot, Iraq, and the Labour Party's civil war

Chilcot, Iraq, and the Labour Party's civil war
Analysis: Over a decade after the Iraq invasion, the unpopular decision to go to war still haunts the UK's Labour Party and plays a leading role in its civil war.
6 min read
30 June, 2016
Jeremy Corbyn has been staunchly against the Iraq war [Getty]
In the early hours of the Sunday that followed Britain's historic vote to leave the European Union, Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn was sacked by the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for disloyalty to his leadership.

Six days, a no-confidence vote and over 60 shadow cabinet resignations later, Britain's official opposition party is locked in a bitter battle that has pitted Corbyn's loyalists in the party's rank-and-file against a majority of their MPs who wish to be rid of him.

While the stated pretext for this revolt was the embattled leader's alleged failure to enthuse voters against a 'Brexit', the roots of the crisis run far deeper.

With the mutiny having broken out just days before the release of the long-awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq war, accusations of a Blairite "coup" against Corbyn – a man who was allegedly preparing to take Tony Blair to trial for war crimes – have surfaced. 

In trying to challenge Corbyn, his detractors have found that Iraq is an issue that simply will not go away, demonstrating how the 2003 decision to invade still haunts the Labour Party, casting a dark shadow over its past, present and future.

The anti-war movement

As a veteran left-winger, Corbyn's huge base of support is drawn mainly from the UK's anti-war movement, which is closely associated to the North London MP.

In particular, many who support him are people who rallied, petitioned and took to the streets in 2003 to oppose the Iraq war, or shared the same sentiment at the time.

At that time, the public outcry against a war was such that the UK saw its biggest ever public demonstration, when between 1 and 2 million people flocked to the country's capital to protest.

In this protest, many Labour party MPs played prominent roles, including the late Tony Benn, George Galloway, Claire Short and Jeremy Corbyn.

February 15, 2003
Mass opposition: The anti-war protest of February 15 2003, the UK's biggest ever street protest [Getty]

Yet, despite this mass movement and impassioned pleas by its own MPs, Tony Blair's government went ahead with the fateful decision to invade.

"They [the party leadership] saw it as something that they [Labour supporters] just had to get over," George Galloway, a former Labour MP expelled by Blair over the Iraq invasion, told The New Arab.

"It wasn't going to deter them and of course it didn't."

Turning the tables

More than a decade after Iraq and nine years after Blair's resignation, the Labour party has undergone drastic change.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the Labour leadership in 2015 after winning a landslide of 59.5 percent of votes from party members – the biggest mandate ever given to a British politician by party members.

Considering the disconnect between the party's leadership and its supporters over Iraq, the election of a left-wing outsider was seen as a huge victory for the grassroots.

"I say to those returning to the party, who were in it before and felt disillusioned and went away – welcome, welcome back to your party and welcome home," Corbyn declared in his victory speech.

Corbyn support rally
Grassroots appeal: A pro-Corbyn support rally in London following the mutiny by Labour MPs [AFP]

Corbyn's election turned the party leadership on its head, with 'rebel' MPs who voted against the Iraq war in 2003 such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott now holding prominent Labour positions.

However, less than a year later, despite the open rebellion waged by Corbyn's opponents, the rank and file members' rejection of the Blair-era politics is still strong.

Recent polling shows that in the event of a leadership challenge, Corbyn would defeat any opponent by as much as 17 points.

Less than a week after MPs launched their mutiny, over 60,000 people are also reported to have joined the Labour Party – many of whom are thought to be Corbyn supporters wanting to vote in the event of a leadership contest.

A suitable challenger

Given the strong indications that Corbyn would win a leadership contest, it comes as no surprise that a formal challenge has yet to be launched.

As many within the anti-Corbyn camp discussed how to deal with his refusal to resign, word also emerged in the press that the Labour MPs were looking for a candidate who had not been tainted by involvement in the Iraq war vote.

"It simply isn't tenable for a supporter of the Iraq war to run against Jeremy Corbyn, one of the leaders of the anti-war movement in today's Labour membership," says Galloway.

Watson, Corbyn and Eagle
Tom Watson [L], Jeremy Corbyn [C]
and Angela Eagle [R] [Getty]
"So there isn't any way out for them, they're exposed, in front of everyone and amongst the 450,000 labour members all of that is fatal and toxic." 

Despite rumours in the press of an imminent challenge by MP Angela Eagle, this has failed to materialise.

Eagle is described by Galloway - a Labour MP at the time of the vote - along with current deputy leader Tom Watson as being of the "one hundred or so true believers" in the Iraq war from 2003. This is in contrast to the rest of the Labour MPs who voted for war, who Galloway says did so reluctantly and out of loyalty to Blair.

Thus, after the first week of the rebellion, it was clear that Corbyn's opponents were unwilling to launch a contest.

For many, it is clear that this is due to their inability to defeat him in an election, with his opponents fully aware that issues like Iraq are still fresh in the minds of Labour supporters.

Chilcot smokescreen?

With the uprising against Corbyn having been launched just under a fortnight before the release of the British government's report on the Iraq war, many are suspicious of a link between the two events.

Just a month earlier, the British press had been reporting that the report's findings would be "brutal" for Tony Blair and those in his inner circle.

When interviewed about the Labour Party's crisis, former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond expressed his surprise at the events, suggesting that the cassus belli cited by Corbyn's opponents – the defeat of the 'remain' camp in the referendum – was perhaps a distraction because more Conservative voters supported Brexit than Labour voters.

Tony Blair
'Damning indictment': The Chilcot report is set to be 'brutal' for former British premier Tony Blair [Getty]

"I thought he [Corbyn] campaigned perfectly ok and I thought his speeches during the European campaign were quite sensible," Salmond said in a recent interview.

"And also more labour voters voted remain that Tory supporters... so I'm sort of wondering, and I know some other people are, if this not a bit connected with the Chilcot report next week," he told a reporter outside Parliament.

"By many indications it's going to be a damning indictment of Tony Blair's war mongering. And most of the people who are gunning for Corbyn were among Blair's keenest supporters. So I'm wondering whether this is a kind of pre-emptive strike about the Chilcot report," Salmond added.

With the report set to be released on July 6, some MPs are said to be preparing to prosecute Blair for breaching constitutional duties as PM and taking Britain into a conflict that resulted in the deaths of 179 British troops.

According to reports, the inquiry's findings will heavily criticise Britain's planning of the war, its justification for intervention and its post-war failings.

With the emergence of the Islamic State group, over 170,000 deaths and more than 10 million Iraqis currently in need of humanitarian aid, not only is the scale of the disaster clear, but also why why those responsible for the war would have it heavy on their minds in the run up to the report's release.

"It's unprecedented," says Galloway of the 2003 intervention.

"People used to say it was the worst decision since Suez in '56. I would argue at the very least, it is the most disastrous decision by any government since the launching of the cataclysm of the First World War."