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It has been widely reported that this vote was used as a means to undermine Labour’s current leader Jeremy Corbyn. This is true, but it is also important to note that opposing investigations into war crimes, and in many cases funding and supporting wars directly, is a bread and butter issue for Blairite MPs. Many of these same MPs voted against enquiries into the war in Iraq. Many also voted for the war.
Part of the reason for this pro-war stance is that following Labour’s embrace of free market economics over the last two decades, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party have been committed, first and foremost, to the profit motive. This has led to uncomfortably close relationships with the arms industry.
Between 1997 and 2002, Labour accepted more than £12 million from arms and defence companies. This is in spite of the fact that, at the time, Labour Party rules stipulated that the party “will not accept donations from companies the activities of which are inconsistent with the principles of the Labour Party”, nor would it accept foreign-sourced donations.
In 1997, the Labour Party received significant donations from US-based Raytheon Systems Ltd. Raytheon Systems Ltd is one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers. It makes a variety of high-tech weapons, including Tomahawk, Patriot, Sidewinder and Stinger missiles, which it then supplies to countries with a wide spectrum of attitudes toward human rights. Raytheon Ltd were also awarded an £800 million contract by the Ministry of Defence in 1999. Coincidence?
Another major donor to the Labour Party in this period was British Aerospace – one of the Raytheon’s biggest competitors. British Aerospace began to take an interest in the Labour Party after Robin Cook, the then Foreign Secretary, announced in June 1997 that British foreign policy would be conducted with an “ethical dimension” and that human rights “would be at the heart” of this project.
For British Aerospace, this was not welcome news. At the time, the arms corporation had an outstanding contract with the Indonesian government to supply sixteen Hawk fighters at a cost of £350 million. Given the Indonesian’s government’s ongoing murderous occupation of East Timor, it seemed unlikely that this contract would be seen as “ethical”.
But then, in 1999, British Aerospace donated to the Labour Party and, as if by magic, their contract was not cancelled. Later that year, the world looked on in horror as over 20% of the population of East Timor were slaughtered because they dared to vote for independence. Of course, the British government could not be seen to have a stake in genocide so in September 1999, amidst massive public anger, Blair halted the supply of arms to Indonesia. Unfortunately, by this point the damage had already been done. The British Government quietly resumed selling arms to Indonesia just four months later.
The Observer newspaper further exposed the sinister relationship between New Labour and British Aerospace, now BAe, when it quoted an “industry insider” as saying that Dick Evans, the then chairman of British Aerospace, had unrivalled access to the British Prime Minister:
Dick is entirely ruthless. He is a hard man and gets his own way. But he has also been the most successful in shifting the political ground and courting New Labour. He’s one of the few businessmen who can see [Tony] Blair on request.
The former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook documented the disturbing relationship between British Aerospace and New Labour in his book The Point of Departure:
In my time I came to learn that the Chairman of British Aerospace appeared to have the key to the garden door to Number 10. Certainly I never once knew Number 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to British Aerospace.
New Labour, it seems, could not appoint enough warmongers to governmental posts in this period. Richard Evans, the chairman of British Aerospace (BA), was, in 2002, sitting on the Government’s Competitiveness Council. BA’s chief operating officer Peter Gershon is paid £180,000 a year as the head of the Office of Government Commerce, which was set up in 2000. The former vice-chairman of BA, Richard Lapthorne, was appointed by the Government in April 2000 to set up its Working Age Agency and Lord Hollick, a Labour peer and party donor, was a director of BA from 1992-1997.
Today, Lord Hollick continues to work in an advisory capacity for British Aerospace. He was also one of Liz Kendall’s main financial backers in the 2015 leadership election.
The door works the other way around as well. Michael Portillo, who served as Defence Secretary from 1995 to 1997, joined BAE Systems in September 2002 as a Non-Executive Director. George Robertson, Defence Secretary from 1997 to 1999, became a Non-Executive Director at military aerospace firm Smiths and a Non-Executive Director of the Weir Group, the Glasgow based engineering firm who are a major supplier of weapons systems for all Royal Navy submarines.
One of the most revealing individuals is Labour’s Lord Hutton, Defence Secretary under Gordon Brown. He is a consultant for the world’s largest arms company Lockheed Martin, and is a man who recently described Jeremy Corbyn as a threat to national security. He also backed the Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, in the 2015 leadership election.
Today, Labour are more cautious about where they get their money because there is now more transparency in the ways that money is donated. Previously, big donations were only listed if they were over £5,000 – making it impossible to tell whether someone had donated £5,001, £50,000, or £1,000,000… although quid pro quo arrangements are still abound.
Nevertheless, their commitment to war and austerity remain the same. Blairite MPs continue to support wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, vote for nuclear weapons, and oppose investigations into serial human rights abusers.
Their open relationship with the arms industry in the Blair years simply demonstrates what they would do if they thought they could get away with it.
With Corbyn now leading the Labour Party, an opportunity arises to break with the warmongering of the right-wing of the Labour Party.
Corbyn continues to postpone this essential task, however. This is a mistake. Recent history has demonstrated repeatedly that conciliation with the Blairites only emboldens them.
The Labour right recently defied a three-line whip in order to oppose investigations in to alleged Saudi war crimes. If this is not grounds for reselection, what is?