A displaced Iraqi Yazidi family takes refuge under a bridge, 17 August. Photo: Getty
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Our part in the Iraq crisis, a forgotten Labour man and grouse-moor people power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

Faced with the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (formerly known as Isis), compassion demands once more that something be done. But no matter how compelling the humanitarian case for military intervention may be, we should pause. Over the past century, every western act in the Middle East – every national boundary drawn, every move to protect our “vital interests”, every subsidy to supposedly friendly regimes or rebel groups, every bomb dropped, every soldier’s boot on the ground, every rocket, tank or gun supplied – has made things worse, culminating in the horrors we now witness.

Minorities that lived peacefully in the region for centuries are being driven from their homes, starved to death and slaughtered, at least partly as a result of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. Even the Blairite David Miliband acknowledges, in his strangulated way, that the invasion “is a significant factor in understanding the current situation”.

Middle Eastern violence has reached such ghastly extremes that, we now think, we can’t make things worse. But we can, always.

The other Snowden files

To Yorkshire, where my wife and I enjoy the hospitality of my old friend and former NS columnist Paul Routledge (now of the Daily Mirror) and his wife. We travel to Ickornshaw Moor, where the memorial cairn to Philip Snowden, Labour’s first (and second) chancellor, towers above the grazing sheep close to Cowling, the wool-weaving village where he was born in 1864. It states that Snowden “lived his whole life in the service of the common people”.

In this lonely and (I should think) rarely visited spot, where the wind chills even on a warm summer’s day, I find this memorial strangely moving. With Ramsay MacDonald, Snowden “betrayed” Labour in 1931 by forming an alliance with the Tories to impose benefit cuts. Though he later resigned from the national government over the introduction of import tariffs, he was widely reviled in Labour circles and is now almost forgotten. But not here in Yorkshire: new signs were recently placed on the road at the foot of Ickornshaw Moor directing visitors to his memorial. He may have made mistakes in the final years of his life but at least he didn’t profit significantly from office, leaving a mere £3,366 on his death in 1937. Now that Labour has suffered other and arguably greater betrayals, it may be time to rehabilitate Snowden.

An age-old grouse

Only in the NS do diarists visit moors to stare at cairns. In other magazines, they go north on or after the “Glorious Twelfth” to shoot birds. In that respect, Ickornshaw Moor is unusual because rights to shoot are held not by rich individuals but in common by local villagers. That is still, just about, the case. In 1892, the villagers managed to see off two landowners who claimed the rights by congregating on the moor en masse on 12 August, the first day of the grouse shooting season. Disputes over ownership and access rights reached the courts on several occasions, most recently in the 1980s.

This small example of “people power” is not well known and the rising that began in 1536 in St James’s Church, Louth, which we visit a few days later, is only slightly more familiar. Known as “the Lincolnshire Rising”, for which the vicar was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, it was against Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Within a few days, 22,000 protesters had occupied Lincoln Cathedral. Though short-lived, the rising inspired the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace. England has many such examples of resistance to overmighty authority. When we seem powerless to resist the biggest attack in more than 80 years on ordinary people’s living standards, we should study and admire them.

Everyone’s a winner

At least we can applaud one brave contemporary struggle. Around 50 workers for Care UK in Doncaster, which runs recently privatised local services for disabled people, have been on strike for a total of over five weeks since February, protesting mainly against wage cuts. I met several of them at Doncaster Racecourse, where their union was sponsoring events such as the “Unison Defending Public Services Conditions Stakes”, which makes a welcome change from the “Queen Elizabeth II Stakes”, and so on.

As she usually does on our rare visits to the races, my wife picked several winners at longish odds just by assessing the horses as they paraded. (It’s all to do with bottoms, she says.) We were too mindful of our Nonconformist ancestors to wager more than small amounts but we made a tidy sum, which I slipped into the Care UK workers’ buckets. It will, I hope, provide modest support to their splendid campaign. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change