Chagos, Vince Cable, and Ed Miliband

The Chagos controversy is now making an impact at the highest levels of government. How will the new

chagos letter

On 13 September, the Staggers exclusively revealed the contents of a letter from the new business secretary, Vince Cable, to his constituent, Dr George Beckmann, claiming that the coalition government was about to come to a "friendly settlement" with the Chagos Islanders, whose case concerning the right of return to their homeland is pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Then followed a frantic attempt by an official at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to claim that the letter had been sent "in error by his constituency office".

Dr Cable has now sent a second letter to his constituent (see above), also from his constituency office, apologising "for the mistake that was made" in "giving an incorrect impression of the actions of the British Government". Nevertheless, it is highly revealing about the status of the new business secretary that Cable did not feel obliged to toe the conventional Foreign Office line and invoke the usual smokescreen about defence security and "treaty obligations" to the US (note: sorry but an exchange of letters does not constitute a treaty) much used by former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the current minister responsible for British overseas territories, Henry Bellingham, particularly as regards the use of the military base on Diego Garcia, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Instead, in his second letter, Cable makes it abundantly clear where his sympathies lie. He explains that while his busy ministerial role precludes him from "remaining as actively involved with this cause" he ventures, "I am sure that the Chagossian cause will continue to be championed by my colleagues within the Liberal Democrat party and campaigners such as yourself".

Meanwhile, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week Mauritius foreign minister, Dr Arvin Boolell, demanded the unconditional return of the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, to Mauritius as soon as possible.

It is a sign of the frustration that Mauritius feels with successive UK governments that Boolell was unusually forthright. "The Chagos Archipelago was excised from Mauritian territory illegally by the United Kingdom... this is a flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions 1514 and 2066," he said, referring to the fact that it was illegal under international law for Britain to excise part of the colony of Mauritius in 1965 before granting independence in 1968.

Boolell also reiterated that his government remains fully behind the right of return of the Chagos Islanders and "greatly appreciated the unanimous and unflinching support from the African Union and the Non-Aligned Movement". Further worries for the FCO will come from the announcement by Dr Boolell that his country had decided not to recognise the marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was announced by David Miliband on 1 April.

As for the future -- given that David Miliband, who during his time in government stuck resolutely to Foreign Office policy on Chagos, is now to leave front bench politics to spend more time with his family, the question is whether there will be a change in attitude on the right of return of the Chagos Islanders at the top of the Labour Party. It is well-known that Ed Miliband was supported from early on in his bid for the leadership by the Kinnocks. Although as a FCO minister Baroness Kinnock was obliged to defend the Foreign Secretary's policy towards the Islanders in the House of Lords on 6 April, she was clearly very embarrassed to do so. Perhaps, it is time for Glenys to make amends and use her famous Welsh charm to persuade Ed to follow Dr Cable's lead on this one.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.