House of commons Cross-bench war party. Photo: Pressenza

The crisis in Labour illustrates a modern fact of life: the old political structures are unable to contain the new political forces at work, writes Brian Heron

On 17 November the British parliament saw a dry run in the construction of the new cross-bench war party. Tory leader, Prime Minister Cameron, was supported and praised by a selection of Labour MPs in his call for British bombing in Syria and the need to accept the use of deadly force when fighting domestic terrorists. In the background Westminster was speculating about the date that Cameron would put the Syria vote to Parliament to reverse his two-year-old defeat. Behind that came the news that the Scottish National Party were putting an anti-Trident motion in two weeks while Labour MPs were queuing up to vote it down – despite the Labour leadership’s call to abstain.

Labour’s party crisis is deepening. A new and separate Labour Party, a Labour Party completely independent of the bulk of its membership, is emerging in Parliament.

The argument over bombing or not bombing Syria has not changed. The killings in Paris have created an emotive edge in the debate in Britain, although terrorist bombings have been crashing through a swath of countries since the end of the summer. Paris makes it more local. But it was only 3 November when Britain’s Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee, chaired by leading Tory, said no to bombing. Yet efforts are now in overdrive among Britain’s political leadership to finally tear down and clear away the effects of the stinking remains of Blair and Bush’s Middle East adventure in the minds of the British public.

As for ‘shooting to kill’, Cameron (and his Labour followers in Parliament) were careful to dissolve what is already common law in the UK into the argument about the British state’s historic ‘shoot to kill’ injunction. It is has always been perfectly legal (and moral) for police personnel, or any person, to defend themselves from mortal danger – up to and including causing the death of their attacker. Of course this may be tested later in court but the principle is clear. Equally, if a member of the police force kills someone who is in the act of trying to kill another person, then that is also regarded as legitimate defense. If one of the Paris murderers who were killing people in a concert was shot and killed by the police, this would be entirely legal under British common law. But that is not, and has never been, Britain’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy.

Under the British policy people were shot and killed who were carrying no weapons, who presented no danger to the public at the time of their death, who were not involved at the time in any action that could be identified as dangerous to public safety. These were the opinions and the statements of enquiries and courts not political ‘appeasers’. When state authorities are allowed, even encouraged, to blur the key distinctions between a suspicion that someone is plotting harm, and the harmful action itself, as the basis of their response, in this case a deadly response, that is a disaster. Not only have they created a secret state beyond and above the laws that we all are required to live by, they have created martyrs and heroes, and destroyed families and trust across key communities.

The crisis in Labour’s parliamentary party illustrates a modern fact of life: the old political structures are unable to contain the new political forces at work in our society. The traditional parliamentary lines of divide do not represent and therefore do not contain the attitudes and issues that animate increasing numbers of the British public. Labour’s parliamentary right wing have started to take their leave. It is surely time for Labour’s left leadership to reach out for those practical, day to day alliances, both inside parliament, Holyrood in Scotland and in the Welsh Assembly, as well as in the movements outside the collapsing Westminster bubble, to begin the creation of a wider formation with the combined strength of purpose to show a new way for the whole of society.