Tuesday, October 10, 2006

John Reid for Labour Leader? What has he actually ever done as a Minister? And how about John McDonnell instead?

I don’t like personalising politics. Politics should be about debating what the right and wrong aims are, what the best or least bad option open to us is and how to achieve them – with everyone getting a chance to put their point of view forward and contribute any expertise or knowledge they have that could help.

Instead most of the media have decided that ‘politics is about personalities’ and this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy too much of the time. So to oppose certain policies it becomes necessary to point out what policies the people the media selects as favourites have actually done or which policies they support – and what the results of those policies are.

John Reid is one example. He’s come across well recently in press conferences and speeches. A couple of his jokes were pretty good as well. I don’t know if someone wrote them up in advance for him if he came up with them himself but either way he delivered them well. His comic timing is excellent.

He’s intelligent and quick witted with a good sense of humour. In every one of the ministerial posts he’s occupied he’s delivered good public relations for the government and the party. The media have decided on this basis that he’s a ‘safe pair of hands’.

His presentational abilities are unquestionable.

Yet what exactly has John Reid ever achieved as a Minister? If you look at the actual results left in his wake the fact is John Reid doesn’t seem to have changed policies at all – and in many cases has left disaster in his wake.

As defence minister John Reid was responsible for British policy in Afghanistan.
As a cabinet member for the last 7 years he could have pushed for a change of policy at any time – or publicly resigned if he felt unable to support its policy.

Instead he allowed the continuation of the disastrous policy of pressuring the Afghan government to destroy poppy crops without providing any alternative source of income for Afghans – many of whom are still starving to death as I type this.

This inevitably pushed many farmers in Southern Afghanistan into the arms of the Taliban or hiring gunmen to protect their crops. After all if the choice is starving to death – and watching your children starve to death - to obey a government that provides you with nothing and seeks to destroy your only source of income – or else disobeying and even defending your crops by force which would you choose?

That’s one of the reasons that British troops are also being killed daily in Afghanistan – because our government wasn’t prepared to consider alternative strategies such as the obvious one - suggested by the excellent Senlis Council report on Afghanistan since the Taliban - of buying the poppy crop and using it to produce painkillers which are in short supply instead. Of course the Bush administration, great abstract moralists (and the Republican party which gets campaign donations from the big pharmaceutical companies who profit from high prices of painkillers due to restricted supplies of opium) haven’t been too keen on this.

If our government , former Defence Minister John Reid and current defence minister Des Browne were really supporting our troops surely they’d be questioning this policy though? In fact they haven’t. ‘Outspoken’, ‘straight talking’ John Reid never uttered a word , never changed the policy.

It seems when it comes to clashing with the Prime Minister or the Bush administration over strategies which are bound to fail and so lead to out troops dying for nothing he just isn’t willing to speak out or talk straight – and isn’t a safe pair of hands at all.

Des Browne – the current defence minister – has emphasised that British troops aren’t carrying out the eradication of poppy crops. That’s quite true. They’re not. The people mainly involved in actually destroying poppy crops are Afghan government forces. The Afghan government’s motives are first that the American and British governments have put pressure on them to end the heroin trade and second that the Taliban and other warlords take a significant share of the profits in the form of protection money used to buy arms and pay fighters.

Yet we’re told that criticising this policy – which was bound to fail from the first (if you destroy the only source of income a country has without providing an alternative they’re not going to all accept it gratefully) is in Des Browne’s phrase ‘undermining the troops’. So continuing to support a self-defeating strategy that’s increasing the number of Afghans who are fighting our troops is ‘supporting’ them – while saying that we should either switch to a strategy of licensing of poppy crops for sale as painkillers and negotiate a peace that stops our troops being killed for nothing is ‘undermining’ them ?

If we offered a better price for poppy crops to produce opiate painkillers than the black market offers for heroin almost none of it would become heroin at all – and half the fighters hired by farmers to protect their crops from us wouldn’t be fighting our troops.

It’s not as though we’re reducing heroin production – in fact it’s increased in Afghanistan by over 1000% since 2001. Past efforts at drug crop eradication in other countries have failed utterly – as in Colombia – or simply led to the relocation of production to other countries (e.g from Turkey to Afghanistan in the 1970s).

Then there was Mr Reid’s job as Health Minister. When Monklands hospital in Mr Reid’s own constituency faced closure he joined the sadly failed campaign to keep it open. However he hasn’t once criticised or opposed the over-priced public private finance initiatives (the new euphemism for PFIs) which were a major cause of its closure – and if Monklands hadn’t closed another hospital would have closed because of the exhorbitant costs of the same PFIs.

As Home Secretary his latest speech referred to the need to put the rights of British citizens above those of terrorists who sought to kill them. The problem with this is that any British citizen could be a suspect. The ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid was born in Britain and grew up here. Equally the police frequently arrest the wrong people – whether citizens or not. Mistakes are inevitable. That’s why we have (or had) a criminal justice system in which people are innocent until proven guilty – so we’ll only send people who are guilty and actually are a threat to the rest of us to jail. If we lose the right not to be jailed without a fair trial – if the government can jail anyone simply by claiming it has secret intelligence proving them to be a terrorist threat – then we’re risking losing democratic rights that took centuries of struggle to get. I’m not saying this government would jail opposition leaders , human rights activists or whistle blowers – but if we bring in these kind of laws what’s to prevent a future government from doing so.

As an orator or a public relations man John Reid excels. If you look at what he’s actually achieved as a government minister or the reality behind his sound bites there’s not really much to say though. Nor does he live up to his reputation for standing up and speaking his mind when he needs to – not when it comes to defending our troops or our NHS patients and staff. He moves from one ministry to another delivering positive tabloid headlines and that’s about it. Disastrous policies like Iraq, PFIs or poppy eradication in Afghanistan aren’t changed but John Reid, like Tony Blair, manages to make speeches which avoid taking any responsibility for the decisions they made to begin and continue those policies.

The only candidate for Labour leader so far who’s been willing to oppose these policies so far is John McDonnell MP. Some of the media seem to have decided he doesn’t have a chance. If they get off with ignoring his campaign that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anyone who actually wants a change of policy could do worse than support JohnMcDonnell for Labour leader – and make it clear that any party that won’t scrap PFIs, bring our troops home from Iraq and oppose the self-defeating strategy developed by the Bush administration in Afghanistan won’t be getting their vote.

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