The first thing I saw when I walked through the labyrinth of security checkpoints at the annual Labour Party Conference here was a young man in a black CBGBs T-shirt and baggy jeans on a big video screen talking about Iraq. By the time I reached the main floor he was just coming through the doorway. “Weren’t you just speaking in the debate about the war?” I asked. “Which side were you on?”
“Supporting the reconstruction of Iraq,” he said.
“What about the motion to set a date for withdrawal?”
“Oh, we were against that,” said Matt Keeler from Romford, who though personally opposed to the war had indeed just told the delegates that “withdrawal of troops in Iraq would be a criminal betrayal of the responsibility we owe to the Iraqi people.”
I’d been misled by Keeler’s costume, but his fidelity to the script shouldn’t have come as a surprise–this was a conference where no detail of presentation was left to chance, speakers remained relentlessly “on message” and the few outlets for dissent were as carefully choreographed as any Soviet-era festival of unity. One delegate who refused to join in the customary standing ovation following Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech and instead held up a sheet of paper saying I’m Sitting Down for Peace was forcibly removed from the hall by police.
Outside the conference hall the news was dominated by the fate of Kenneth Bigley, the British engineer taken hostage in Baghdad. Inside, until the very last day, the Labour Party leadership stuck firmly to what might be called the Basil Fawlty doctrine: Don’t Mention the War. Some 200,000 members (about half the party) have already quit, but Tony Blair’s grudging act of contrition–“I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam”–wasn’t aimed at them. Nor was Shanaz Rashid’s plea: “Please do not desert us in our hour of need.” Rashid, an Iraqi Kurd who mysteriously arrived at the conference podium in the middle of the one, very brief scheduled debate on Iraq, may well have been intended as a counter to Bigley’s brother, who’d appeared on Al Jazeera the previous day urging Blair to withdraw from Iraq. “We don’t understand the criticism of your Prime Minister,” Rashid told the delegates with an obvious sincerity only slightly undercut by her failure to mention the fact that her husband is a member of the current Iraqi provisional government.
Not that such histrionics were necessary. These were, after all, the people who hadn’t left the party over the war. And the four big unions, who among them controlled 40 percent of conference votes (some of whom had passed their own motions calling for withdrawal of British forces), had already agreed to back the government on Iraq in return for promises on workers’ rights and pensions during Labour’s third term.