Beyond Kaminski

Have we forgotten the Latvians and the rest?

Has the Kaminski brouhaha distracted us from the bigger picture? The Tory blogosphere may want us to change the subject and move on, but the reality is that the cuddly Cameroonian Conservatives remain allied, in Brussels, with a bunch of whackjobs, loons and bigots. Will Straw has the details. Does David Cameron, for example, know that the Lijst Dedecker in Belgium includes an MP who has -- in a manner reminiscent of the BNP's Nick Griffin -- described Islam as a "cancer" and called for "global chemotherapy" against it? Does Cameron even care?

Perhaps most shameful of all are the Tories' new allies from Latvia, the For Fatherland and Freedom (LNNK) party, whose sole MEP, Robert Zile, sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, and even attended the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

The Tories have been keen to defend this controversial party, which honours Latvia's Waffen SS veterans each year with an annual parade in the capital city, Riga, on 16 March. The shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, and the party's chairman, Eric Pickles, have both condemned Labour and the Lib Dems for recycling "old Soviet smears" and "endorsing Soviet propaganda" against the Latvians. Hague and Pickles have claimed that the so-called Lettish Legion consisted of conscripts and that the parade is a mainstream and official event.

This, however, has been refuted and disproved by, among others, the journalist Peter Beaumont (the Observer's award-winning foreign affairs editor) and the Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff (from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre). Up to a third of the Latvian SS region were volunteers -- and deeply implicated in the Second World War-era massacres of Riga's Jews. Moreover, the 16 March parade is not an officially sanctioned event and, says Beaumont, "When the head of Latvia's armed forces participated in the march, Latvia's parliament voted to have him removed from his position."

The Speccie's Rod Liddle -- not normally a man I agree with! -- summed up the situation early this month:

It is not the slightest use Eric Pickles insisting that Latvians who fought for the Waffen SS -- who were honoured by the party in question -- were merely patriots and that to argue otherwise is a Soviet slur, because it is simply not the case. Further, presentationally, the words "Waffen SS" have, historically, tended to have a negative impact upon the British voter. The man in the street associates the phrase -- perhaps wrongly -- with all manner of bother, all kinds of horribleness. Also, it is the sort of phrase which sits uncomfortably with the notion of "caring Conservatives", even caring Conservatives who are going to freeze the wages of everybody except bankers as soon as they take office. How did they allow themselves to get into this position, then? Either through stupidity or principle, one supposes. I am not sure which of the two is worse.

It is not David Miliband who owes the Tories -- or the Poles, or the Latvians -- an apology; it is Hague and Pickles who owe all of us an apology: for aiding and abetting in the rehabilitation of the Waffen SS while presenting false and inaccurate information in defence of their absurd and amoral position.

Note: Before the Tory trolls descend on this blog to feign outrage and disgust and point to Labour's dodgy allies in the European Parliament, let me remind them (again!) that Labour, unlike the Conservatives, did not go out seeking new allies and new groupings. Nor is the Party of European Socialists, to which Labour belongs -- unlike the European Conservatives and Reformists, to which the Tories belong -- dominated by bigots, weirdos and extremists on the far-right fringe of European politics. Is that clear?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.