On Labour Uncut, the Milibands and Diane Abbott

Yes DM may well win. But to say he "has won" may not help him

I have a strict policy of not responding to personalised blog stuff on the web. But given that I am such a fan of Labour Uncut, and given that it is so widely read in serious Labour circles, I have to respond to a passing reference in Dan Hodges's flowery piece today claiming I have argued that "Diane Abbott would prevail" in the Labour leadership contest. As it happens, I have long known that one of the Miliband brothers would be the next Labour leader, and was I think the first journalist to tip Ed Miliband as Gordon Brown's successor back in 2008 when the younger brother was barely on the leadership radar. Conversely, since the idea of Ed Miliband being next leader has become more conventional, I have been more torn about which brother will win, and repeatedly recorded David Miliband's successes in the campaign (incidentally all of this is different from who "should" win).

Now, it is true that I reported relatively early that Abbott looked like she would make the ballot paper, and then wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog reporting a Labour source explaining how she could win like Harriet Harman won the deputy leadership contest from the outside in 2007. Qualifying the blog with the headline "don't laugh", I concluded: "So, will Diane Abbott be the Harriet Harman of 2010? In reality, almost certainly not. But do not underestimate the unpredictability of this contest."

For the record, I do not think and never have thought that Abbott can or will win this contest. But there is -- still -- "unpredictability" over which of the Milibands will win. Which is why it is mildly odd that Hodges's piece, more importantly, is all about how David Miliband has already won. Nor, I suspect, is it particularly helpful to, er, David Miliband.

PS: Talking of LabourUncut, there was another interesting piece on there yesterday, this time by the new Labour MP Michael Dugher about the need for a move away from top-down leadership of the party. In it, Dugher wrote:

[The] new leader will not have the mandate - whoever wins - that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown had. This has been a contest, not a coronation, and the outcome is likely to be very close.

I thought I'd mis-read this and my eyes had invented the "not" in the first bit of the sentence. Dugher is a very smart and rather wise guy, but surely the point about this new leader is that he will have a mandate that Brown -- and to an extent Blair -- lacked, as this is the first real contest since Michael Foot became leader in 1980. If David Miliband wins, he will be all the more powerful for having seen off a ruthless bid by the Ed Miliband team to beat him. If Ed Miliband wins, sources close to him say he will have the "mandate" to implement a leadership to the left of New Labour, contrary to the conventional view that he will bring his party back to the centre.

PPS: Look out for my tips for some unexpected names in the shadow cabinet, and some ones to watch along with a lengthy Harriet Harman interview in this week's magazine.

UPDATE: For the record, when I say that Ed Miliband may not lurch to the right if he wins, I am very much not buying into the "Red Ed" nonsense about him being a mad Trot who could never win an election.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.