By Aisha Maniar
Demonstrating that foreign policy issues and their implications on domestic issues are of concern to the electorate, over 80 local residents joined a packed out lively pre-election meeting organised by Brent Stop The War (STW) and Brent & Harrow Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) with the Pakistan Community Centre in Willesden Green on Monday 13 April.
Questions had been submitted for candidates ahead of the meeting on various issues, including Trident renewal, the Iraq war, Israeli settlements, British torture complicity, relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel’s nuclear weapons and European relations with Israel.
The London Borough of Brent covers three constituencies: Brent North, Brent Central and Hampstead & Kilburn. As members of the two host organisations live in all three constituencies, five prospective Parliamentary candidates were invited from these constituencies, however Luke Parker, Conservative candidate for Brent North, had to cancel just days before and the party was not represented. Labour candidate for Hampstead & Kilburn Tulip Siddiq represented her party; the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dem) were represented by Brent Central’s Lauren Keith, speaking at her first such meeting since her recent appointment, and the recently-formed Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) Party was represented by Brent Central candidate John Boyle. Due to a CND engagement at the same time, the Green Party was represented for the first half by Brent Central candidate and deputy party leader Shahrar Ali and for the second half by Hampstead & Kilburn candidate Rebecca Johnson, who was billed. Tulip Siddiq had to leave halfway through to attend another engagement. The meeting was capably chaired by Jane Shallice from the Stop The War Coalition.
The candidates were first asked about their views on Trident renewal and whether public funds should be used for this purpose when consecutive governments claim that there are insufficient funds for essential public services such as schools, hospitals and the fire service. The Labour and Lib Dem candidates did not oppose Trident renewal. Instead, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq stated that there was a need to look holistically at creating self-sufficient public services. Lauren Keith, while not against Trident, said there was a need to review Britain’s military capacity and aim for a de-escalation of nuclear arms.
On the other hand, Shahrar Ali and John Boyle, sitting on the opposite side of the female speakers, were both unequivocally for the scrapping of Trident altogether. Ali stated that there is no need for nuclear weapons at all and that the UK must honour its non-proliferation obligations under international law. He further stated that while men largely draw countries into war, it is the women and children both at home and abroad who suffer from these wars and as a result of cuts to public services made at the same time as increases to military budgets. Boyle stated that the government’s ability to renew Trident “exposes the lie of austerity”.
Concerning the Iraq War and current British military intervention there, Tulip Siddiq called Britain’s 2003 involvement in the invasion of the country “the biggest failing of the Labour government”. All the other candidates were also opposed to further British intervention in Iraq; Lauren Keith stated the region needs to be looked at more broadly and that Britain should consider talks with Iran and reviews its relations with Gulf states. Britain should be involved through diplomacy and negotiation. Shahrar Ali stated that reflection is also needed on state terrorism by the states involved in the conflict, such as the UK, and its ramifications on clampdowns on civil liberties at home and freedom of speech, especially for those who oppose government foreign policy. Instead of war, diplomatic avenues must be considered. John Boyle called the Iraq War “a war for resources” and stated that the UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia demonstrates that social justice is a false pretext for grabbing resources.
Commenting on claims and proven evidence of torture complicity against the British government, the Labour and Lib Dem candidates called for accountability and transparency. Lauren Keith called ‘secret courts’ rolled out by the ConDem government “dangerous territory”. Rebecca Johnson for the Green Party stated that soldiers are trained to lose their sense of morality and evidence of brutality and inhumane treatment is further proved through the increase in domestic violence when soldiers return home. Ms Johnson said that those responsible at all levels should be prosecuted and that there should be “no impunity whatsoever for anyone in war or peacetime”. She added that returning soldiers also needed therapy. John Boyle stated the police and army lack democratic accountability and that the problem was far from one of weeding out a few bad apples but of systemic abuse.
Questioned on their views on the Palestine and Israel conflict, the candidates were all unanimous that there should be a ban on the import and sale of Israeli settlement goods. There was also agreement that there was media bias in the reporting of the conflict and what Rebecca Johnson called the “invisibility” of the everyday suffering of Palestinians in the media. John Boyle said that it was up to politicians to combat this bias by using the stage they are given through their position and taking direct action to raise awareness. Lauren Keith suggested that social media was a tool available to politicians for such purposes.The candidates were less sure, however, on the question of how to deal with the current situation.
On the question of NATO membership, both the Greens and TUSC said that Britain should leave NATO whereas the Lib Dem candidate said we should remain a member. The candidates were also divided on the issue of Britain’s involvement in Ukraine and whether it should intervene further.
Asked about the impact of foreign policy issues closer to home, all of the candidates reported to be pro-immigration. Rebecca Johnson stated that the issue was not immigration but social inequality and that those are the issues that need to be tackled. With respect to radicalisation, Lauren Keith stated that the reasons for radicalisation are diverse and that greater transparency and honesty is needed in the political system to deal with it. Rebecca Johnson stated that one of the contributing factors driving young people to radicalisation is the closure of or lack of youth services as a result of increasing cuts. John Boyle stated that the issue was largely a colonial legacy and related to Islamophobia and the marginalisation of communities and racism of the British government.
The interest and depth of questions posed by those attending the meeting shows that, although governments tend to overlook public opinion on foreign policy, particularly where such opinions are opposed to war and militancy, these are certainly topics that concern and engage the public. What happens on these issues after 7th May remains to be seen.
Thank you to everyone who attended and to the Pakistan Community Centre for providing refreshments.