Friday, 4 February 2011

Labour in Helmand: Operation Overreach?

Things like this make me wrestle with myself. My instinct as an activist is to be supportive and I feel like we all need cheering on. But I also need to understand why this trip was a good idea. I felt uncomfortable watching the footage of Labour’s Afghanistan trip and I have this uneasy feeling that those on the receiving end did, too. In pictures, we saw a gung-ho Ed; Jim Murphy smiling supportively; a slightly sheepish-looking Douglas Alexander; and a bunch of impassive soldier faces. The media coverage seemed neutral, if a little light, because of the tight security and Egypt. But…maybe it was just as well.

Perhaps, having grown up in a Forces household, I have an over-developed sensitivity to how these things are perceived. Perhaps everyone else involved, here and in Afghanistan, thinks it was a great idea and saw a clear rationale. I understand the need to show we are not “soft” on defence and behind our troops. It’s also legitimate, up to a point, to try and emulate the Prime Minister in the things you do, so voters can visualise you in the role.

But now we have to ask:
what was Ed actually doing in
Helmand, what were we hoping to achieve? What did we think the reaction of the troops and local politicians would be? And what do we think we could “do to help”?

Spare a thought, for example, for General Petraeus, the Allied commander. Do you think: great, here’s a senior British politician come to give some moral support to the troops? No. In fact, you probably think: hey, here comes some British guy I’ve never heard of, to have a meeting which can’t be of any help to me, since he’s not in government and can’t be for at least four years. How do you feel?

Might it not be that both Petraeus and Afghan leader Karzai simply feel obliged to meet him out of politeness? (I suspect the “action points” section of the meeting minutes must have been pretty short.) And would they not naturally have compared the meeting with their prime minsterial meetings, where they had real issues to deal with, and found it wanting: a mere photo-op? And how does that make us look?

Now, this is not to decry all Opposition visits to war-zones, although there might just be a case for that. But, politically, is not a visit with bigwigs best done closer to a general election, when the leader can be seen as a potential PM? Or, at least, when we have some policy meat to road-test in the field? The fact is that we have neither a defence policy, nor the proximity to an election, to make these meetings weighty. And, were it simply a fact-finding mission, surely we could have kept things low-key.                                 
Like, in fact, David Cameron: who waited 9 months before his first, “fact-finding” Afghan visit after becoming Opposition leader; there was no public meeting with Petraeus and no Karzai; and all in the company of British servicemen who might reasonably have expected to be more pro-Tory than pro-Labour. It was a modest PR success. We, in contrast, managed a trip which seemed hasty, ambitious in its scope and less well-executed.

Furthermore, crucially, when we say to soldiers in combat we want to “do more to help”, how do we intend to keep that promise - write a letter? Table a question?

The problem is that when both you and they know that you are unable to change their situation, the warm noises about what you’d like to do, but don’t or can’t, sound like just that, warm noises. It’s a lesson we might have learned from the Today interview, where Ed was “tempted” to join the student protests.       
And yes, this is picky and superficial but we must learn to stop hyperbolising everything as “brilliant”, “fantastic” or “incredible”. When you are speaking to a platoon of soldiers who may not all come home, to describe their mission as “incredibly important”, with a gushing emphasis on the “incredibly”, sounds, well, patronising. Trust me.

I raise this perhaps trivial point because, ultimately, what do we think the soldiers’ reaction must have been? We can be pretty sure it was – at best – a puzzled “what’s this all about, then?” Picture the scene: a politician, who many may not have recognised, whose Party probably few of them voted for, comes to tell them that he really supports them. It is as if we are somehow willing these soldiers to go dutifully away with a warm feeling, heartened by the earnest thanks of a man who doesn’t run the country and isn’t in charge. They won’t. It’s not the same.

If this sounds critical, it is with the best intentions: some of us really want our presentation to get better, and want Ed to succeed. But I am struggling, really struggling, to see how this visit has helped.

This post first published at LabourUncut and in the top 5 posts in Ed's Inbox at LabourList.

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