The Tories' attack on the unions lacks credibility

The Conservative claim that Unite has taken over the Labour Party is absurd.

Here is the new poster the Conservatives have just released, attacking Labour's financial links with Britain's largest trade union, Unite.

It's part of a fierce assault on the union this morning, with the Tories also launching an attack document on the subject and Michael Gove delivering a speech on "Charlie Whelan's new militant tendency".

Brown poster

The Tories aren't wrong to point out Labour's increasing financial dependency on the unions. Last year unions were responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party, with Unite alone accounting for 25 per cent (£3.6m). But isn't this all rather nauseating, coming from a party that for so many years was sustained by the non-domiciled Michael Ashcroft?

As I've argued before, there is no comparison between the donations Labour receives from Unite's political fund (to which nearly 1.3 million members voluntarily contribute) and the millions the Tories receive from Ashcroft, a man who has sat in the legislature for nearly a decade without having the decency to become a full UK taxpayer.

Gove's claim that Labour's political strategy is now dictated by the unions isn't much more convincing. Here's a key passage:

Class warfare has not only been resurrected; it has been elevated to holy principle, used in every possible circumstance including, most famously, in vicious, aggressive and direct attacks from a prime minister who purports to govern in the national interest.

His description of Gordon Brown's rather amusing joke about "the playing fields of Eton" as "vicious, aggressive and direct" is absurd and delusional.

The party's decision to list the 108 MPs who belong to Unite, as if this proves that the party has been infiltrated by a hard-left sect, is equally laughable. It ignores that almost every Labour MP is obliged to belong to a union (after all, the party was founded by them).

Thus, ludicrously, Alan Milburn is at once "outed" as a member of Unite, while also being cited by Gove as a New Labour reformer who has quit parliament in horror at the rise of the unions.

But the Tories, for whom the looming British Airways strike is a political gift, aren't concerned with such objections: they've got an election to win. And today, buoyed by the latest polls and the European Commission's criticism of the government's deficit strategy, they've put Labour on the back foot for the first time in weeks.

Labour should respond not only by pointing out the contradictions I've outlined, but also by arguing that the Tories are rather more vulnerable to the charge of offering policies for cash.

As my colleague James Macintyre pointed out last year, a number of major Tory donors stand to gain more than £500,000 each from Cameron's plan to slash inheritance tax. Labour now needs to go on the attack -- and soon.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.