David Jamieson argues that 20 years on, the disaster of the ‘War on Terror‘ is still felt in the decline of the Labour party.
Notwithstanding his recent demise, Donald Rumsfeld goes door to door in the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen.
Canvassing has ended for polling day, but President Bush’s defence secretary is still doing the doors. He’s not alone, but joined by the living; Peter Mandelson is with him, handing out leaflets for the Labour party (though the brand he and colleagues did so much to renovate is now so tarnished they only bare the name of the candidate). Tony Blair isn’t in the constituency, but he is advising both the government and the opposition.
Rumsfeld, who died at 88 on the last night of the by-election campaign on 30 June, is survived by his three children: the Afghan war (20 years old) the Iraq war (18 years old). He is also survived by the messy decline of the Labour party which joined him in those efforts, and whose steep decline dates, roughly, to their onset.
Rumsfeld, the organiser of the wars, infamously said of Iraq: “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” And now his children will bury him.
The Taliban are poised to retake Afghanistan, having seized huge areas of land, and accepted the surrender of large numbers of government troops, weapons and equipment. Hours before Rumsfeld’s death, the British flag was lowered in Afghanistan. Within days, it was announced, the last of the US fighting capacity would be withdrawn. For the regime established by the US and Nato allies in Kabul, calamity is approaching.
On Rumsfeld’s final Sunday, President Joe Biden proved continuity between the US’s ruling war party by bombing Iraq, now a sectarian state, where powerful, corrupt cartels and Iranian influence is well established. Incursions by Turkey into Kurdish areas in northern Iraq (the protection of which was yet more grease in the propaganda machine) continue.
And in Batley and Spen, a generation of New Labour war hawks are back in leading circles, watching the Labour party coalition degrade and fall apart, watched-over by the spectre of the man who so infamously cooked-up the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction mythology.
There are many tributaries to the continued unwinding of Labour, and the War on Terror is not the proximate one in Batley and Spen. There is a more obvious backdrop – a largely absent MP who dumped her post for another job, a leader with little profile in the country and apparently no political ideas, and above all a Leave voting constituency which has been falling away from Labour since the a brief resurgence in 2017. The Labour vote was up in the constituency by 12.3% in 2017, before collapsing by 12.9% in 2019.
But Starmer’s ejection of Corbyn from the party, the repudiation of his anti-war stance and his positions of Palestine and Kashmir, and the rehabilitation of figures like Mandelson and other New Labour cadres, who also helped stoke official Islamophobia in the party and the British state, is part of the mix. In Batley, where about 20% of voters are Muslim, many constituents have had enough of their community being sidelined. Holding his final campaign rally in the constituency, George Galloway welcomed the demise of Rumsfeld.
Beyond the immediate relevance of the War on Terror, and its long foreign policy tail in this by-election, it has a special relevance for the decline of Labourism across the UK. It helped undermine the party in Scotland, and destroyed what trust remained in the Westminster circuit and the increasingly rarefied party-careerist sphere. Iraq above all is part of the story of modern British politics, and remains a watershed in the breakdown of US and British liberal democratic structures.
In order to ignore this reality, Labour HQ will argue anything, including that voters in the by-election have been deluded by their own antisemitism. But whatever the result in Batley and Spen, activists can blame at least part of their troubles on their own willingness to travel the path of destruction laid out by Rumsfeld and company two decades ago.