This week marks the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the disastrous Bush and Blair war in Iraq. This war led to 100,000s of deaths and made the world, including Britain, a more dangerous place. The 15th anniversary should be seen as a timely reminder of how trust in politics got broken, where we are and where we need to go from here.
There is little doubt that we live in challenging times, whether that be the permanent circus of reaction that is the Trump US presidency or the debates around Brexit and the future of the British economy and our role in the world.
Faced with such challenging times, people need representatives that they can trust and who they can relate to. After years of people losing faith in “mainstream” politicians, we need representatives who we can trust to tell the truth and stand firm on their promises and principles, even when that means swimming against the stream of the Westminster bubble.
Few will need reminding that, in the run up to the war 15 years ago, the then Labour Party leader and prime minister Tony Blair advocated the invasion with the claim that Iraq possessed nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD), capable of being deployed within 45 minutes. If true, it was a frightening prospect.
Many of us, of course, believed that Blair had already taken his decision, entering into a war pact with US president George W Bush up to a year before.
A massive anti-war movement, which I was honoured to fully back as then mayor of London, refused to accept the case for war, but enormous pressure was applied inside Westminster to wavering MPs by the Blair leadership.
The build-up to the war in Iraq was one of those rare but truly historic occasions when all eyes are focused on the affairs of state.
The prospect of war was discussed and debated in workplaces, schools and colleges, at bus stops and on trains, in pubs, hairdressers and cafes, in living rooms and at kitchen tables.
People do not soon forget moments such as these and the millions of votes Labour lost in the following years, and thousands and thousands of members who left in the aftermath, reflected how Labour’s then leadership lost people’s trust over Iraq.
Despite public opposition, Blair got the parliamentary votes that he required, including majority backing from the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The war on Iraq proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Millions were displaced, injured, lost loved ones or had their lives damaged in the chaos.
The threat of terrorism increased, contributing to the rise of the vile, reactionary group that now calls itself the Islamic State.
The claims that were made to win support for the war were proven false, vindicating the anti-war campaign.
Over 12 years later, in the summer of 2015, one of the tribunes of that anti-war movement, Jeremy Corbyn, became Labour leader.
On February 15 2003, I shared a platform with Jeremy, who told the largest-ever demonstration in British history that war would unleash a “spiral of conflict, of misery, of hate, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.”
The years since have proven him right and the wave of people rejoining the Labour Party to elect and then re-elect him as leader showed that people had not forgotten.
In the summer of 2016, in response to the Chilcot report, Corbyn spoke for Labour members and voters across Britain when he apologised on behalf of the party for its involvement in the rush to that disastrous war 15 years ago.
Ever since Jeremy became leader, his opponents in Parliament and the media have argued that Labour instead needs a leader better able to spin, flatter and cajole — a leader more along the lines of Blair.
Others simply can’t understand Jeremy’s popularity but seem to believe that sticking to his principles is the reason it isn’t higher, rather than a key reason for his support.
These criticisms have been combined with regular bouts of the political establishment and the Tory-supporting media seemingly throwing as many smears and misrepresentations as possible at Jeremy, his leadership team, and indeed the mass movements that support him, in the hope that some of it sticks.
But these are very different times. Numerous different shocks to the system — Iraq, the financial crash, the EU referendum and the impact of the Trump presidency — mean we need a leader for these times.
We need a different kind of leadership, both firm in its principles and radical in its approach, that can rebuild and win back trust so Labour can return to government.
As part of this, fifteen years on from the war on Iraq, Corbyn has pledged to put peace and justice at the heart of foreign policy if he becomes prime minister.
As Jeremy has said, “British foreign policy has long failed to be either truly independent or internationally co-operative, making the country less safe and reducing our diplomatic and moral authority.”
As we reflect on the 15th anniversary of the Iraq war, the Trump presidency will undoubtedly make the world an even more dangerous place. And under Theresa May, Britain could hold hands with Trump into conflicts even more disastrous than Bush and Blair’s – another reason why we all need to build the pressure on a range of fronts against this government and force it out.
Then, learning the lessons from Iraq, in contrast to the Tories’ approach, with Labour in government and Jeremy in No 10 we would have the genuinely independent and ethical foreign policy Britain needs.
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