Veterans make the journey to Normandy to Commemorate the 70th Anniversary Of D-Day. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Remembering our D-Day heroes

This anniversary marks one of the last chances we will have to thank them for their selflessness, courage, determination and sacrifice.

Like many British families, my own has its special memories of a loved one who died fighting for our country in the Armed Forces. And this week’s commemorations on the 70th anniversary of D-Day is particularly poignant for us. 

My uncle, Sergeant Vernon Coaker was killed in action on 6 June, 1944. He was a member of 3 Commando from the Devonshire Regiment that took part in an assault on the town of Le Plein. The records from the War Office show that Vernon and his comrades struggled ashore with bicycles – the chosen mode of attack – and their heavy kit, and made their way slowly through swampy ground before mounting the attack.

As they began the operation to take the town, they found out that the mortars they had been equipped with were of no use because the charges had been removed. But my uncle Vernon and his comrades were ordered to carry on with the attack anyway, with very limited weaponry and little hope of survival.  They came under fire from German soldiers hidden in outlying buildings on the road into Le Plein, and they were forced to fall back. After an officer was badly wounded and a soldier killed, they still fought on, taking control of some of the buildings in the town. But as evening fell, my uncle was killed when an enemy bomb directly hit the building he was sheltering in.

We as a family are very proud of him. He was my father’s older brother and when I was born a few years after Vernon died, my dad named me after the brother he had looked up to so much.

It’s for that reason and in that spirit that today I’m in Portsmouth with many others, taking part in commemorations to mark this hugely significant and symbolic anniversary. Alongside the ceremonies taking place in France, it’s important that people here in Britain – men and women of all ages and from all backgrounds – get the chance to show their gratitude and appreciation to those who fought for our freedom and their future.

That’s why I called for a national commemoration to be held, not least to allow veterans unable to travel to France to take part in events nearer home. But also to ensure that those veterans can receive recognition here in the United Kingdom, in the country they fought for. I’m glad that’s happening. Because as the years pass, the numbers of surviving D-Day veterans grow smaller, and after these commemorations the Normandy Veterans Association will disband. So this anniversary marks one of the last chances we will have to thank them for their selflessness, courage, determination and sacrifice.

In Portsmouth today, I am reminded again of how much we are indebted to them, those who came before and after them, and indeed all those who continue to serve our country today.

Vernon Coaker is shadow defence secretary

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.