Britain: After Robin Cook's resignation - The Labour Cabinet at War

The dramatic resignation of Robin Cook, until yesterday the Leader of the House of Commons was a devastating blow to Blair and represents another nail in the coffin of Blairism. The prospect of war has shaken British politics to its foundations. There is no going back for Blair now. Sooner or later his days as Labour leader are numbered.

The political gossip columnists of the British press have been whispering a bizarre idea in the last few days. In a stratagem too Machiavellian even for the Alastair Campbells [press officer and one of the most consummated spin doctors in Britain] of this world it was mooted that Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, made her opposition to war and possible resignation known only in order to be able to withdraw it later, and back the prime minister. As unbelievable as such a scheme appears, nevertheless the result has been exactly the one predicted. Short having mulled the question over and engaged in a lengthy discussion with Blair has backed down and will now vote with Blair in favour of war. The reality behind Short's decision is probably somewhat more mundane. Ex-lefts like Short have no real understanding of the war, which they see as principally a moral dilemma, and no real perspective for the international situation nor for the labour movement in Britain.

Whatever the truth may be, it is now pretty irrelevant. The whole Clare Short situation has been relegated to second place by the dramatic resignation of Robin Cook, until yesterday the Leader of the House of Commons. Not only was this the first open split in Blair's cabinet, which we had explained would be the inevitable consequence of war, an event dramatic enough on its own, but the tone and content of Cook's resignation speech which earned him a standing ovation in the House of Commons from the growing ranks of anti-war MPs, was a devastating blow to Blair and represents another nail in the coffin of Blairism.

Cook's speech exposed the hypocrisy of the US and British governments in relation to their failure to implement UN resolutions over years demanding the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories of Palestine. He also tore a strip off the illogical arguments for war being presented in unison by Bush and Blair. Many of the arguments he presented will be familiar to readers of this website, they are not new. What is new is that they represent a chasm opening up at the top of the British Labour Party which will have the most profound consequences.

Of course, Cook didn't oppose the war from a consistently socialist point of view. His first concern is the damage being done to international organisations like the UN and Nato. In this his views are shared by sections of the capitalist class in many countries.

"The European Union is divided. The security council is in stalemate. Those are heavy casualties of war without a single shot yet being fired." Cook argued.

In a stinging indictment of Bush and Blair's claims and their hypocrisy, he went on to state that Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction, and if it does they are the remnants of those sold to Saddam by British and US governments.

"None of us can predict the death toll of civilians in the forthcoming bombardment of Iraq," he continued. "But the US warning of a bombing campaign that will 'shock and awe' makes it likely that casualties will be numbered at the very least in the thousands. Iraq's military strength is now less than half its size at the time of the last Gulf war. Ironically, it is only because Iraq's military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate invasion. And some claim his forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped that the war will be over in days.

"We cannot base our military strategy on the basis that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a serious threat. Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of that term - namely, a credible device capable of being delivered against strategic city targets. It probably does still have biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions. But it has had them since the 1980s when the US sold Saddam the anthrax agents and the then British government built his chemical and munitions factories.

"Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years and which we helped to create? And why is it necessary to resort to war this week while Saddam's ambition to complete his weapons programme is frustrated by the presence of UN inspectors?

"I have heard it said that Iraq has had not months but 12 years in which to disarm, and our patience is exhausted. Yet it is over 30 years since resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

"We do not express the same impatience with the persistent refusal of Israel to comply. What has come to trouble me most over past weeks is the suspicion that if the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops to action in Iraq."

His belief in Al Gore, however is undermined by Clinton's article in the Guardian today pleading with Labour MPs to back their leader. Many of them will instead be considering supporting a new leader. Cook has now placed himself in the front line of such a challenge.

Backing the unanswerable public opinion of two million on the streets of London, Cook, despite protesting that he supports Blair, other than on this the most important question of the day, is in reality outlining his own desire to lead the party in a different direction. His first act as leader of the opposition within the Parliamentary Labour Party has been a rallying call to other MPs to rebel in the Commons vote.

"I believe the prevailing mood of the British public is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator. But they are not persuaded he is a clear and present danger to Britain. They want the inspections to be given a chance. And they are suspicious that they are being pushed hurriedly into conflict by a US administration with an agenda of its own. Above all, they are uneasy at Britain taking part in a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies. It has been a favourite theme of commentators that the House of Commons has lost its central role in British politics. Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for parliament to stop the commitment of British troops to a war that has neither international authority nor domestic support"

Apparently Cherie Blair, the prime minister's wife, has been busily phoning MPs urging them to vote with the government. Who knows what promises are made in such conversations. However, whereas five or six years ago, few MPs would oppose Blair for fear of their careers, revolt is now proving quite contagious.

Last year Blair's backing of right wingers in union leadership elections was described as "the kiss of death", his support helping to ensure the victory of left wing candidates, so unpopular had Blair become particularly amongst union activists. Now it seems that a similar process is underway in the Parliamentary Labour Party. One cannot doubt the genuine opposition of many MPs to the military adventure in Iraq. However, their rebellion is no doubt eased by the overwhelming support of the population, the trade unions, the rank and file of the movement, and now even the resignation of a leading cabinet figure. Three junior ministers immediately followed suit and handed in their resignation. Their reasons sounded like quotes from Cook's speech. There will be more such resignations to come.

In tonight's vote in the Commons the revolt may reach as many as 200 MPs. That would be historic indeed. In any case the numbers against war, that is voting for Peter Kilfoyle's (Labour MP for Liverpool Walton) anti-war amendment, will certainly top the 121 who rebelled last time. Blair may even find himself reliant on the votes of Tory MPs to carry his position. Ironically he would then achieve what many in the labour movement believe was his lifelong ambition - to be a real Tory prime minister.

Whatever the size of the revolt may be, there is no going back for Blair now. Sooner or later his days as Labour leader are numbered.

Despite his inevitable claims to the contrary Cook has now clearly marked himself out as a possible candidate against Blair in a future leadership election. Blair's sternest critic in the media, Paul Routledge of the Daily Mirror, is already offering his support: "He can honestly claim to be the true voice of Labour and a potential leader of his party." Cook will be fully aware that opposition to Blair, and not only on the war, but on domestic questions, now has overwhelming backing in the ranks of the party and the trade unions. Tam Dalyell the veteran Labour MP has called for a special conference to depose Blair as party leader as a result of the war. Already deselection battles have started in some London constituencies, with Blairite Oona King MP only managing to secure reselection thanks to the votes of union representatives. This makes it clearer than ever, trade unionists must not abandon Labour, they must immediately take up their seats in the Constituency GCs, and replace those MPs who back the war, or for that matter who back privatisation or other attacks on workers. Don't Contract out, Contract In! Trade unionists can reclaim the Labour Party. Whilst we cannot predict with any accuracy the outcome of tonight's vote, nor predict with any certainty how much longer Blair will survive in the leadership of the party, we can predict with absolute confidence that the process of transformation which began over a year ago inside the trade unions has now got under way with a bang inside the Labour Party too. We can confidently predict that, we have been doing so consistently for some time. Contrary to those who declared the Labour Party dead, "embourgeoisifed", transformed into a capitalist party, we have consistently explained that despite the pro-capitalist leaders and policies of the party and the Blair government, the organic links between the party, the unions and the working class meant that changes in society, events, would have to find their expression inside Labour at a certain stage. That process has now begun.

This does not mean that we predict a million workers will join the Labour Party tomorrow, nor that Blair will be removed next week. This is a process which will take place in ebbs and flows just as the process which has opened up inside the trade unions over the last year or two. The decisive point to understand is that this process has now started.

The prospect of war has shaken British politics to its foundations. As events unfold over the coming weeks and months there will be many surprises and shocks. Things will never be the same again. The anti-war movement, bringing unprecedented numbers of workers and youth onto the streets of Britain will no doubt shake up the Labour Party more and more in coming weeks. Meanwhile all is far from quiet on the industrial front with new firefighters strikes being declared. Blair, Prescott and co have stated that such strikes could be made illegal during a war. Such an outrageous attack would be met with overwhelming opposition from the movement and in society in general. If they go down this road Blair and co may find that they have bitten off more than they can chew.

There are many events yet to come which will influence the process in British society and inside the labour movement. Be part of them. Join with us in the struggle to reclaim Labour from the Blairites, join with us in the struggle against the imperialist war, join with us in the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.