BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 30.09.01

Film: PAUL WILENIUS On worries about war in the Labour Party and amongst the general public.

PAUL WILENIUS: Imagine a world without war. No killing , pain, or suffering. Such a place of innocence and peace does indeed seem a distant dream. But these peace protesters in London are still hanging on to that dream, just as many did in the 1960's. Then they took to the streets outside the American Embassy, to protest at the war in Vietnam. The anti-war feeling was so strong it spread through parts of Harold Wilson's Labour Government and Party. Now Tony Blair is standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States, as it hovers on the brink of a global war on terrorism. The American Embassy here in Grosvenor Square is now a symbol - not only of the revulsion at the recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but also of the determination to fight back. Yet although there is clear public support for military strikes, the first signs of unease within the Labour Party are starting to emerge . OONA KING MP: In my view you don't meet barbarianism with barbarianism. You don't respond to the deaths of innocent civilians, by killing innocent civilians. GLENYS KINNOCK MEP: Many of us would, would feel enormous pain if we were to see a number of innocent civilians affected. Hundreds, thousands of people trying to get through closed borders to refugee camps. So I, I do think that - I think what we've seen and what maybe we continue to see is, is a whole failure of the diplomatic process to deal with this crisis. WILENIUS: The sheer scale of the humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan was ignored for years by many in the West. It's a country already shattered by military conflict, pounded back into the dark ages by decades of war . Although there's widespread backing inside Labour for some kind of military action, there are fears it may only hurt more innocent people , casting doubt on the wisdom a full scale assault to fight terrorism. How widespread are these worries? On the Record tried to contact all four hundred and twelve Labour Party chairs in seats with sitting Labour MPs. We spoke to almost half of them, one hundred and ninety four, and found that a clear majority are against giving the Americans a free hand on military action , or extending the war to attack other countries like Iraq. When asked : Do you believe that Britain should "support whatever military action the United States decides to take " in Afghanistan? One hundred and six said No, and seventy nine said Yes. NEIL GERRARD, MP: Certainly talking to members of my own party recently, most I think believe that we've got to take action after what happened in, in New York. How far they support military action is, is another question and I think perhaps most of all, the, the mood was one of concern of being uncertain about what was going to happen, and being worried about where in the end it might lead us. WILENIUS: On the question : Would you back the spread of military action to other countries as part of a war on terrorism, ninety-seven No, with seventy-four saying Yes. GERRARD: I can see no justification at the moment for suggesting that we should attack Iraq, Sudan, some of the other countries, that, that have been mentioned. No evidence that they've had any direct involvement in what's happened in, in New York. WILENIUS: But the party activists we consulted did want to be tough on the Taliban , when asked whether : One of the aims of military action should be to bring down the Taliban Government in Afghanistan? One-hundred-and-eight said Yes and seventy-seven said No. KINNOCK: It does require a, a great deal of, of thinking about how we do it, and how we do it in a way that limits the, the effects on, on civilians and the, the enemy is bin Laden and it is then to overthrow the Taliban and then to restore democracy in Afghanistan. Those are the three processes, all of them hugely difficult. PAT MACFADDEN: Well there's always been a pacifist thread in the Labour Party but I believe that its less strong now than it was say for example in the 1980's. And I think that in the support that the Prime Minister's received so far, is not because that's less but because of the sophistication of his response to the crisis. As I say quickly aligning himself with the United States on a military level, but also making clear, as has President Bush, that people mustn't take this out on the peaceful law abiding Muslim community in Britain and in the United States and also saying that there must be a humanitarian response. WILENIUS: Oona King the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow arrives for a meeting about the forthcoming conflict with anxious party members. More than half of her constituency in East London is Muslim, and there are real concerns that if the military strikes on Afghanistan are too ferocious, they could make things much worse. UNNAMED MAN: Children are dying overnight and so on. Okay many innocent people have died in America as a result of what's happened, but many innocent people are dying in Afghanistan as a result of war, or threat of war. Now you know something needs to be done about that as well. UNNAMED PERSON: I think we also need to ask the role we actually played and the role now we need to play and I think it is bringing to account our politicians as much as those who are responsible for the attack that they have committed. WILENIUS: Oona King is worried about the impact of the expected war on refugees. She fears that the steady flow of Afghans fleeing their country could become a torrent. KING: If the action that's taken results in many more millions of people, and there are already more than a million Afghanistani's walking towards the border with Pakistan that haven't already got there. If the response that we see sparks off more and more millions of people flooding into that area, it will destabilise the entire region and that's not a policy objective that anyone wants. KINNOCK: We are an internationalist party, we have very strong feeling of solidarity, and we would have a feeling of solidarity with the people of Afghanistan, with the women of Afghanistan, the most persecuted human, huge abuses of human rights that you could imagine in the whole world in Afghanistan, and our party would be deeply worried about the humanitarian crisis that is occurring and is likely to get worse, were there to be a big military conflict in the region. WILENIUS: It's not just the extent of the military operation overseas that's worrying many Labour Party members, like these in East London but there are real fears that a prolonged war on terrorism would threaten civil liberties and human rights back here at home. East London, not Kabul. But the tension in the air is still palpable. Muslims gather in the local mosque, worried about revenge attacks on them after the terrorist atrocities in America. Fears of a violent and political backlash disturb some Labour MPs. There are concerns draconian new security measures could be counter productive targetting asylum seekers and other refugees. KINNOCK: I very much believe that none of those measures should contravene the human rights act, that civil liberties and human rights are very very important and in amongst all of this we should not be demonising and criminalising all Muslims, we risk having people picked up simply because of their ethnic background, their nationality, the way they look, where they came from, that's very dangerous and I think could be very divisive . WILENIUS: Despite anxieties in the Muslim community, there is pressure on the government to be seen to do something in Britain to fight terrorism. Home Secretary David Blunkett is preparing a package of measures to give extra powers to the immigration and security services, although doubts are surfacing over identity cards. MIKE O'BRIEN MP: We looked at the issue of identity cards in the first Blair government and I certainly was convinced that we didn't need identity cards. It was an illusion that they would really provide much greater security. We decided against it for much the same reasons as the Conservatives decided to abolish identity cards in the 1950's, and that is, it undermines the relationship between the police and the public. The forgers are able to reproduce them, usually relatively easily, and therefore it provides us a false sense of security. FRANK DOBSON MP: Whether it would contribute very much to actually combating professional dedicated terrorists, I'm not at all sure. And it would probably cost more than a billion pounds and there might be better ways of spending a billion pounds protecting the people of this country. WILENIUS: Tony Blair will direct the forthcoming military campaign from here in Downing Street. But many in the Labour Party have told me they're concerned the war could become so all consuming that the government is blown off course, on the economy and public services. JOHN MCFALL MP: Well, the American economy was going down before the events of September 11th and they were heralding a recession there. With a knock on effect throughout the world its important that we cushion that effect as much as possible in the UK; Gordon Brown has already laid out his comprehensive spending revue figures and we have the pre-budget report in November and the Departmental Spending limits going to be announced next year. I think in the light of this, that there will have to be some revue in the Treasury on these spending limits and departments. WILENIUS: But being hailed as a true friend by President Bush, could have a high economic price for Tony Blair. As a British battle group steamed for the Gulf one Cabinet Minister all too aware of this told me last week, war costs a lot of money. This combined with a downturn in the economy will put heavy downward pressure on the public spending promises made before the last election. O'BRIEN: There are concerns in the Labour Party about the impact of the war and the economy on public expenditure. Our key commitments as a Labour Government were to improve public services, Health and Education. We must ensure that throughout the next year or two that we give the highest priority to ensuring that that is done. We need to win the war against terrorism, but we also need to ensure that we keep our promises to the British people. If it's a choice between public services being cut, or looking again at Taxes then we'll have to make some difficult decisions. GERRARD: People will expect us to deliver those improvement on public services whatever's happening in terms of foreign policy. So I think if it comes to choice on spending or even tax increases, it will be fatal for us to use spending on security or anti-terrorism measures, as a reason for cutting public expenditure on public services. WILENIUS: The looming conflict has breathed new life into the anti-war wing of the Labour Party. But even before this crisis, opposition to some of Tony Blair's peacetime policies had been re-invigorated. Many of the traditional elements of the party had come together to oppose policies for more private sector involvement in public services. DOBSON: I think one of the problems has been that during the election there was a lot of sort of ill defined talk about further private sector involvement in managing the health service, but quite frankly, I don't think it's a runner, I mean the average private hospital has about fifty beds. It doesn't have any emergency admissions. Its fairly low tech, easy to run. I don't think anybody who's just been running some two-bit private hospital is going to make much of a contribution to improved management, do you? WILENIUS: Until a few weeks ago, it seemed this sort of open discussions and dissent would dominate the party conference this week. Now it appears it will be pushed to one side, for the moment, by the worries and anxieties over the coming conflict. But the war has only added to Tony Blair's problems, in keeping his party united behind his vision over the next few years.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.