Tamils for Labour organised what was probably its biggest ever meeting on 11/04/2016. The main attraction for the 400+ people in attendance – many of whom were young Tamils – was the chief speaker, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Labour Party leader and leader of the opposition.
Hilary Benn MP, shadow foreign secretary, Chuka Umunna MP, former shadow business secretary under Ed Miliband, gave speeches, as did a number of other Labour MPs. Journalists Callum Macrae, Frances Harrisonand Sonya Sceats, who have written in detail about the plight of the Tamils were also on the platform.
What stood out a mile was the enormous gulf between the approaches to foreign policy within Labour. While Keith Vaz MP tried to claim that the Labour Party differs fundamentally from the Tories, Hilary Benn demonstrated that his position was not that different to Liam Fox, the much-hated and disgraced ex-Tory foreign minister, and his successors.
Benn has previous. Last December, for example, while arguing that Labour should “resist isolationism” and in favour of bombing Syria, he launched a direct attack on Corbyn. His “we must confront evil” speech that he delivers in the parliament is infamous. It led to his promotion as a possible challenger for Corbyn by the right wing of the party, and the establishment media. Anti-war activists were disappointed when he survived the reshuffle that followed but not surprised that he has not changed his views on foreign policy.
Benn lectured us. But failed to produce any substantial statement that could satisfy those who attended. Although he threw in terms such as “autonomy” as a possible political solution to be considered in some distant future, his central theme was an insistence on following the Tory line of continuing trade treaties with Sri Lanka as key policy. This was despite Sonya Sceats, from Freedom From Torture, and many other activists setting out factual details of the ongoing torture, injustices and unwillingness of the current government to offer any substantial political concessions.
He was, however, sharply taken up by Corbyn who spoke after him. Jeremy gave his foreign secretary a little lesson in what defending universal human rights actually means. He indirectly questioned Benn’s ‘moral compass’ by stating that “trade treaties must include the meaning of human rights. If a trade partner is involved in any form or method of compulsion – ie torture – they should not be treated as equal trade partners”. He explained that he is committed to the struggle of the Tamils to achieve their self-determination”.
It is this difference that pulled such a crowd. Prior to Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election, Black and Asians in Britain did not attend Labour meetings with this enthusiasm. In fact the Black and Asian community, facing the brunt of the Tory-led onslaught on essential services, are alienated from all the establishment parties.
Chuka Umunna admitted that support for Labour among Black and Asians is at an all-time low. In a limited way a reversal of this has taken place in recent times not because of fundamental change in Labour, but because of the enthusiasm and momentum created by Jeremy Corbyn and his willingness to stand up and articulate at least some of the demands that are of immediate concern for the working people in Britain – such as defending the NHS, free education, fighting low pay and so on.
What we are seeing in Jeremy Corbyn is the election of a leader whose foreign policy approach brings him into direct conflict with the majority of his party leadership. The much-hated former PM Tony Blair famously asked if those who voted for Corbyn to be leader should have a “heart transplant” . Umunna packed his speech with arrogance and ignorance – he seemed to think this was part of the launch for his campaign to be the new leader. They are all plotting to oust Corbyn before 2020.
This raises an important strategic question for the Tamil diaspora as well as those in Sri Lanka who want to resist the neoliberal austerity offensive. The current Sri Lankan government enjoys all the support it can get from western powers for the clear reason that Benn pointed to – the changed approach to trade with the west.
When Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire’s told British Tamils to get on planes to see human rights progress first-hand it understandably appalled many in the diaspora as well as human rights activists. Those who seek justice for the war victims have a choice – they can walk into a blind alley with the Conservative Party and their UNP partners in Sri Lanka; or they can stand firm on human rights and mobilise support for the democratic and national demands of the Tamil masses.
At a time when working class people from all ethnic backgrounds are facing an attack on their rights, at a time when the UNP is planning to privatise everything in sight, where the Tamil diaspora stands is crucial. Are we going to stand with the IMF and their partners who aim to contribute to the deterioration of workers’ conditions in Sri Lanka or stand firm against them. The latter cannot be done other than by defending the rights of all – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and hill country workers. Without doing that the demand for national rights will not have legitimacy in the eyes of those at the receiving end of the upcoming onslaughts. It will not be possible to reach out to the wider population of Sri Lanka to get support for the demand for self-determination while we can be seen to stand with their oppressors.
That we can win all our rights with the help of right-wing international governments is the most bogus claim. The British Tamil Forum, notable in its absence at this Labour meeting, has in the recent past made significant efforts to link itself closely with the Tories. It is also in the process of strengthening its ties to the current Sri Lankan government. Such tactics will only strengthen the hands of chauvinists such as the previous regime. Even if the BTF argues that they have no concern about what goes on in the south of Sri Lanka, the fact remains that they will not win any rights for Tamils with this strategy. Hugo Swire made the above infamous statement at a BTF meeting and that stand was not heavily challenged by the BTF. The Tories have made their attitude towards the any political solution crystal clear, time and time again. Their rotten and regressive role of the Tories in ‘solving’ any conflict, is elementary level for any political student. While answering one of the questions at the meeting, Hilary Benn spelled out that the Labour right’s approach would not offer a way forward either. His party leader’s speech did not shift him in any way.
When Hilary was reminded that seven years had passed since the end of war, he came out with a horrendous answer that shocked the audience and other activists. He reminded us how long it had taken for justice to be considered following Bloody Sunday! It is disgusting that it took ecades before they are talking about who killed who. This further deepened the scar rather than heal it. Benn not only offended the Tamil victims of war but also the victims in Ireland.
Time does not heal without justice delivered. To say that the Tamils have to wait decades before they can see any justice is to deny justice and let the criminals and offenders off the hook. All for what? Trade treaties – so that big businesses can open a secret account in Panama? We must reject this foreign policy – it does not benefit the workers in Britain and takes public services away from Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka and it denies justice and national rights to the Tamils.
The outrage felt in the room was given voice by Callum Macrae who immediately responded to this point and reminded the meeting that “justice doesn’t have to wait” and in fact it is of the utmost urgency to deliver justice in order to prevent further conflicts and the escalation of existing problems. Who won the debate? Well it was Callum who was mobbed by the youth to the extent that it took hours before he managed to depart the building. This is a lesson for the left in Labour too – if you want to win the hearts of the Black and Asian youth show them that you’re ready to challenge the Tories in Labour like Hilary.