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10 March 2003

Tony still has friends in the north

Were the 121 rebel MPs who voted against the government on the Iraq war under pressure from their co

By Edward Howker

I’d been on the train since 6.30am and by the time I arrived in Darlington at 9.30 I was ready for a proper breakfast and plenty of coffee. What I found instead, when I arrived at the Darlington Labour Party annual general meeting, held in a (c.1980) sports centre, was whisky.

Nick Wallace, an ambitious (and sober) prospective MEP and secretary of Alan Milburn’s constituency Labour party, was brandishing a bottle of House of Commons Scotch signed by the Health Secretary.

“You start early up here,” I said. He did not laugh. I thanked him for seeing me at short notice and at this unearthly hour of the morning. “It’s fine,” Wallace assured me. “I deal with journalists all the time.”

The Darlington AGM had a raffle for the Scotch, a bottle of wine and some chocolates. There was also a guest speaker. The level of patronage in Darlington clearly reflects the status of the local MP, and, I suspect, the aspirations of Wallace, who stood near me like an anxious parent as I asked other members about war in Iraq.

For this was why I was here: to find out if the 121 rebels who defied the whip on 26 February had been acting under pressure from their constituents. Did the likes of Christine McCafferty (Calder Valley) and Roger Godsiff (Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath) fear deselection, or mutiny among their local supporters, if they voted with the government on the war?

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At the national level, Labour headquarters fears that an unpopular war will lead to a low turnout for the May council elections – some predict as low as 20 per cent. Since Christmas, constituencies up and down the country have been reporting resignations. In Cambridge Dr Alastair Reid, author of A Short History of the Labour Party, resigned just before the protest march in London, and the co-chair of his constituency Labour party (CLP) has reported that several more have left. The impact will become clear when figures are released in the next few months, but the official membership total has dropped by 135,000 in the past four years.

At Darlington, however, I could see no evidence of constituents putting pressure on their MP; the 20 or so members who attended the AGM seemed convinced, if only because “Tony” (Blair) seemed passionate about it. “The arguments are filtering through now,” Nick Wallace told me, saying he felt that the party was beginning to come round. He believes that although there have been a few resignations these are an inevitable consequence of being in office. Governments have to make hard choices.

Elsewhere, in areas where the MP is not on first-name terms with the Prime Minister – Middlesbrough, for example – the party is less convinced. I met the secretary of Middlesbrough CLP at his home, which was large and Victorian, with a garden just big enough to allow for his ornithological leanings. He told me that “The activists are disappointed, but that’s as far as it goes.” He also said that Dr Ashok Kumar, of Sikh/Hindu origin, who sided with the government in the vote, was a trusted MP, and there were no plans to deselect him even if there was not broad agreement about the government’s policy.

Moving further north-east I met Tony Niland, the agent for Terry Rooney MP; he is a local councillor and chair of Bradford North CLP. Only fifty years ago, Bradford was home to more Rolls-Royces than any other city. For nearly two centuries it was a hub of British industrial power – but no longer, though the vast telesales warehouses provide employment for many.

In July, it will be two years since the city bore witness to some of the worst race riots in Britain’s history. Niland fears that not only could war in Iraq exacerbate the continuing racial tensions in Bradford, it could also encourage the far right. The British National Party may take as many as three ward seats in the May elections if there is a “no-show” by regular Labour voters.

Niland’s attitude to the council elections is uncompromising: “We will go into the mosques, temples and churches and say we don’t support the war.” He fears that it will be impossible to convince the city’s 75,000-strong Muslim population of the case for war. “We will have to show that this is not a war against faith,” he said, “but against a dictator.”

Niland, an ex-marine, now counsels retired troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and is of the opinion that fighting should always be the last resort. He said that at a recent meeting of an ex-paratroopers’ association he had been informed that British casualties could be as high as one in nine soldiers, should a full-scale invasion take place. I finished off by asking him how the local party felt about the Commons vote. He summed it up: “We’re glad the government got a good hiding on Wednesday, and I hope they will listen now.”

The mood in Bradford is one of disappointment and trepidation. Many of the local party faithful are certain that senior members of the council will lose their seats over the Iraq issue.

In common with Roger Barley, chair of Sutton Coldfield CLP, Niland cannot see how the government can justify the cost of war in Iraq (estimated at £3.5bn) while there is “no convincing case for war”. Similarly, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the chairman of Rother Valley CLP, Jim Garton, said he might resign if there was an attack on Iraq without a new UN resolution supporting the use of force. “We have no justification at all for a war on Iraq,” he said. “The logic of the situation beggars belief. It is manufactured by George Bush, and oil is a factor. People are very, very concerned about the close links Blair has with Bush on this issue.”

Next stop was Huddersfield. The local Labour Party AGM was held in the town hall, next door to a music contest called “the Mrs Sunderland Competition”. Here I met Barry France, chair of Huddersfield CLP, who said it respects the decision of the local MP, Barry Sheerman, to vote with the government even though the party ruled unanimously against intervention in Iraq at a recent meeting. He warned: “Some people struggle with their conscience on this issue and if war happens, they will leave.”

The mood at the meeting was far from despairing, France stressed. He had been present at constituency meetings during the 1984 miners’ strike: “Now that was a party at war with itself.” So there was no sense that the issue of Iraq would do the same? “No – in the past 20 years discipline has broken down nationwide, but there have been no mass walkouts at our meetings.”

The Blair government’s policy on Iraq is a calculated risk. True, the party will continue to haemorrhage members and lose revenue, but if the policy succeeds that will not matter. The problem is, a foreign policy triumph, according to Labour members, would entail full international support, all other options exhausted, minimal casualties, a short conflict, and a lasting and equitable peace. Good luck, Tony.

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