David Lammy MP at Westminster, 2014. Photo: Flickr/Policy Exchange David Lammy MP at Westminster, 2014. Photo: Flickr/Policy Exchange

Lindsey German on Lammy and Lenin

Labour’s David Lammy opined on Saturday that his role models were two former foreign secretaries, Ernest Bevin, a dominant figure in the 1945 Labour government, and Robin Cook, who served in Tony Blair’s Labour government, resigning on the eve of the Iraq war which he opposed.

Lammy hopes to hold the same position in a Keir Starmer government. But, as he made a keynote speech at the weekend, pro Palestine demonstrators made it clear that even Labour’s foreign policy in opposition is deeply unpopular.

His choice of predecessors does not bode well. Ernest Bevin was typical of right-wing Labour: he posed no challenge to empire and colonialism, embraced narrow nationalism and patriotism, and helped repress national liberation movements. He presided over the partition which accompanied Indian independence when over 1 million died, the British military intervention in Malaya against the independence movement, and of course the Nakba in Palestine.

He also promoted the development of nuclear weapons, saying that he wanted a British nuclear bomb ‘with a bloody great Union Jack on it’.

Robin Cook was a very different case: a promoter of human rights, an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and a strong opponent of the Iraq war. By the time he resigned just before Britain joined the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 that ethical foreign policy was in tatters. Lammy on the contrary voted for the war so it’s hard to imagine him repeating Cook’s stance.

Indeed, everything we know about Lammy and Starmer is that they are totally committed to British foreign policy and will do nothing to challenge a declining US imperialism which is increasingly relying on its military might to compensate for its waning economic power. Desperate to avoid charges of lack of patriotism from the Tory government and its mouthpieces in the Mail and Express, the Labour leadership will do nothing to challenge the demands of Biden – or Trump for that matter if he becomes president.

We see this most acutely over Palestine: Labour refuses to call for an immediate ceasefire despite the genocidal actions of Netanyahu and the IDF. While Lammy was forced to criticise Netanyahu for refusing to even countenance a Palestinian state, in reality neither the US or UK governments are doing anything to stop the slaughter. Indeed their bombing of Yemen has helped to escalate the war in the Middle East.

That escalation is continuing, with targeted assassinations and missile attacks going on across the region. Most recently, five members of the Iranian revolutionary guard were killed by an Israeli attack on Damascus, while a US base in Iraq was targeted by a militia. The crisis in Gaza is both a horror show in its own right and the catalyst for war spreading.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps made clear the British government view in a speech last week when he argued for more money for military as Britain was now in a ‘prewar’ situation and that major wars would occur in the next five years. To do this, Shapps wants Britain’s ‘defence’ spending to rise to 3% of GDP. Labour should be saying loud and clear that it will not back any such moves but of course it will not.

The Starmer position on Gaza, particularly his refusal to call out mass punishment of civilians, has done him terrible damage electorally, with around 100 Labour councillors resigning from the party over it, and the slogan ‘no ceasefire, no vote’ heard on many demonstrations.

Lammy’s tenure as foreign secretary, if it happens, will see a continuity with that of the Tories and indeed of previous Labour governments. Blair is remembered above all for Iraq; Harold Wilson’s government from 1964-70 was involved in the war in Aden, part of Yemen, which it eventually lost; and Attlee’s post-war government made Britain a cold war nuclear power.

But of course there are much more consequences for politics than the increased threat of war. Spending on ‘defence’ is pretty much ring fenced, whereas we see whole councils going bankrupt, hospitals unable to treat patients adequately because of funding, a housing crisis which has spun out of control because of the near moratorium on council house building. All these and more because we ‘can’t afford’ public spending on them and many other areas.

Labour has no alternative to this and indeed makes one of its main planks of politics that it will be fiscally responsible, in other words will not increase spending if this is deemed imprudent by big business and the finance markets. But it will not challenge military spending, and so will be tied to increasing levels of military and weapons spending. It will also be tied to the policies of the US which are increasingly isolated among world governments and across public opinion.

We desperately need an alternative to this. At the moment electoral options are few, and tend to be isolated. That may change after the election, but it puts an even greater onus on extra parliamentary movements to deliver. The Palestine movement remains huge and a great inspiration but we need to develop it. That’s why the trade union day of action on February 7th is so important. We also need to fight growing levels of repression by the state against protest.

This is true not just of the attempts by the police and other authorities to limit or criminalise solidarity protest. We should tie it in with the attacks on trade unions with the minimum service laws. The TUC is demonstrating on this next weekend in Cheltenham, and the train drivers’ union Aslef has called more strike days on LNER in protest at the government-directed imposition of minimum service levels. They need our support and solidarity. Warmongering abroad and repression at home: the need to organise is clear – and will remain under a Labour government.

The real Lenin

It’s 100 years ago today that the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin died. He’s had a bad press in recent years, denounced as dictator and fanatic, but the reality is very different. He was a socialist who believed that workers themselves should run society and that to do so they had to overthrow capitalism. That’s what the Russian revolution managed to achieve very briefly before it was destroyed by war, famine and isolation, which led to the rise of Stalinism. He was part of a generation who fought against repressive Tsarism, imprisoned and exiled repeatedly, and who created a revolution out of mass opposition to the First World War.

His critics on the right want to bury that history in order to maintain a rule which is unable to deliver and which is making life harder for the vast majority of people in the world. They want to pretend that there is no alternative to this rule. Lenin showed that there was, and that those who simply wanted to make minor changes to the system had nothing to offer. He inspired millions as this great poem from the 1930s by the African American writer Langston Hughes illustrates:

Lenin walks around the world.
Frontiers cannot bar him.
Neither barracks nor barricades impede.
Nor does barbed wire scar him.

Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.

Lenin walks around the world.
The sun sets like a scar.
Between the darkness and the dawn
There rises a red star.

This week: I’m going to the Stop the War anti-war convention on Sunday, the Latin America conference on Saturday, and speaking at a London Counterfire public meeting on Wednesday about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. I’m reading Enzo Traverso’s The End of Jewish Modernity (Pluto) which is very interesting.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.