Iraq proves both the government and its left critics need to learn the art of debate

Good to talk

With poor local election results, disappointing losses in the Scottish parliamentary elections, ructions over foundation hospitals and the resignation of Clare Short following hard on the heels of the traumatic war in Iraq, it’s clear that we are currently in rather choppy political waters. On the horizon, too, there are more storms brewing: over top-up fees, the euro and public service reform. The only bit of silver lining we’ve seen recently came with Rhodri Morgan’s victory in the Welsh assembly elections.

Progress supported the use of military action to topple Saddam. On balance, we believe that the outcome of the war justifies that stance. However, one does not need to swallow whole the unfair and rather unpleasant prognosis of Clare Short to recognise that the government does need to learn some lessons from the events of the last couple of months.

Although we admire the bravery of the Prime Minister in making the case for military action – in the face of considerable party and public opposition – we believe that the debate over Iraq within the Labour party came far too late. As Tony Robinson argues in this issue of the magazine, too many party members felt their government was about to undertake a war of dubious moral and political legitimacy without proper debate. And this is not the first time that members have felt sidelined. Moreover, it is time to recognise that only a few of the many members who wish to engage in policy-making and feel ownership of party policy want to foist an old-left agenda on the government.

It is, in fact, a peculiar trait of this government that it sometimes appears unwilling to engage in debate when the case it has to make is a strong one. There was an entirely justifiable argument to be made for taking military action as a last resort in Iraq. Interestingly, the political heat in the Labour party appeared to cool once, belatedly, the government started making it.

The problem with this aversion to debate is that is leaves those on the left who do not support the government free to peddle the myth that the traditional values of the Labour party are somehow being betrayed. This is nonsense and needs to be taken head on. The division over public service reform in general, and foundation hospitals in particular, is not between those who remain true to Labour values and those who wish to embrace a privatising neo-Thatcherite agenda. Instead, it is a division between two differing traditions of socialist thought: those who believe that inequalities can only be overcome by statist, centralised solutions and those who embrace an agenda of localism, devolution and mutualism.

It is not the case that Labour simply needs to recognise the need for more debate in the party. We also need to change the terms of the party’s discourse. The government needs to learn not just to make its case to the party but also to show how its policies – especially those surrounding public sector reform – flow from, and are entirely consistent with, the party’s core values. The sometimes deliberately provocative language in which some elements of government make their case – designed to win plaudits from the Daily Mail but offensive to many in the party – needs to be abandoned.

But it is not just the government that needs to think about how we conduct debate in the party. Some on the left need to abandon the intellectually dishonest conceit that only they can be trusted to safeguard Labour values and that anything with which they disagree is an abrogation of those values.

Simply to hurl accusations of betrayal and question constantly the motives of those who generally support government policy is not only spurious, it also feeds the cynicism and distrust that is increasingly infecting popular opinion in Britain. The tendency of some left publications that claim to support Labour but which, at every turn, seek out evidence of the government’s infidelity to party principles, revel in Labour’s financial difficulties, and engage in personal vilification, needs to end. We expect this kind of contribution from the hotchpotch of minority parties and splinter groups that lie to Labour’s left. But those within the party who adopt this style need to learn that it disfigures the very open and free internal debate that they claim to be so keen to see.

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