MacShane, Georgia, Iraq and me

The former minister takes issue with a column of mine.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Denis MacShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham and former Foreign Office minister under Tony Blair. He is an unrelenting and articulate critic of Cameron's Conservatives and a passionate, opinionated and interesting politician.

Like me, he has criticised the BBC over the BNP, attacked David Cameron's alliance with Michal Kaminski, and helped expose the "cult of Cable". But it would be absurd to pretend that he and I agree about foreign affairs. MacShane, for example, is an outspoken defender of Israel and a signatory to the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society.

The former minister has had a letter published in this week's New Statesman, having a go at yours truly. Our published letters are not available online, so I have reproduced it below:

The usually super-savvy Mehdi Hasan is wrong on Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 (Dissident Voice, 25 January). If 20,000 men cross the frontiers of a sovereign state, while an air force bombs civilians and a fleet sails to bombard the enemy coast, most of us think that's an invasion.

Hasan writes about the "the traditional Tory school of scepticism in international affairs". That gave us appeasement of apartheid, support for Pinochet, a knighthood for Mugabe and a blind eye as 8,000 European Muslim were killed one by one at Srebrenica. I thought the NS was against tyranny and dictators and Tory appeasement of both?

"Usually super-savvy"? Denis, flattery will get you everywhere . . .

Let's respond to his two main points in turn:

1) In my column, I mocked David Cameron for rushing to Tbilisi, in 2008, "to declare his support for embattled Georgia, which, he wrongly claimed, had been 'illegally invaded' by Russia". MacShane disputes this, blaming the conflict on Russian forces crossing "the frontiers" of Georgia.

But the EU's Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia supports my view. Here are the conclusions of their September 2009 report, via the BBC:

"The shelling of Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital] by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia," the report says.

It adds later: "There is the question of whether [this] use of force . . . was justifiable under international law. It was not."

It also says Georgia's claim that there had been a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before the outbreak of war could not be "sufficiently substantiated", though it said there was evidence of a lower-level military build-up.

And here's the BBC's Tim Whewell, who investigated the outbreak of hostilities for Newsnight in November 2008:

Its [Georgia's] attack on 7 August on the breakaway region of South Ossetia triggered a Russian invasion, which in turn sparked the biggest crisis in east-west relations since the cold war.

The United States, Britain and other western governments offered Georgia strong diplomatic support, accusing Russia -- South Ossetia's ally -- of aggression and massive overreaction.

But now mounting evidence is casting doubt on Georgia's account of the origins and course of the war. It suggests that Georgia played a bigger role than it admits in provoking the conflict, and that it may have violated the rules of war in the first days of the fighting.

Oh, and here's Colin Powell, a Republican and former US secretary of state, speaking on CNN shortly after the war began in 2008:

POWELL: And I think it was foolhardy on the part of President Saakashvili and the Georgian government to kick over this can, to light a match in a roomful of gas fumes.

SESNO: So you're saying the Georgians provoked this?

POWELL: They did. I mean, there [were] a lot of reasons to have provocations in the area, but the match that started the conflagration was from the Georgian side.

Care to respond, Denis?

2) MacShane then turns to my preference for "traditional Tory . . . scepticism in international affairs" over the discredited, belligerent neoconservatism promoted by Michael Gove, George Osborne and others on the current Conservative front bench. He refers to Tory support for Augusto Pinochet -- conveniently omitting to mention Jack Straw's decision to send Pinochet home to Chile in 2000.

He also mentions a knighthood for Mugabe, again conveniently omitting to mention that it took Labour 11 years to strip him of that knighthood --and that, too, under pressure from the Tories.

MacShane is right to condemn the Hurd-Rifkind appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic in the mid-1990s, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of European Muslims. But he fails to mention Labour's own miserable record on war and peace: the illegal invasion of Iraq, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

I oppose "tyranny and dictators" as much as the next man -- unless the next man is the Saudi-loving, Mubarak-supporting George W Bush. I just don't advocate illegal wars of aggression, which kill thousands of civilians, as a means of getting rid of either.

 

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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.