Parliamentary candidates for the constituency of Richmond Park questioned on the ‘war on terror’, nuclear weapons and Palestine.

Stop the War Coalition

Richmond hustings

Richmond hustings 8 April 2015

Of all the sharp, cannily worded, deeply concerned, as well as genuinely curious questions thrown out at last night’s Richmond peace and antiwar hustings debate, one perhaps caught the mood best of all: why in this election are we hearing so little about foreign policy issues when major wars are raging across the Middle East and on Europe’s edges?

Almost all the candidates who took part – Labour, Lib Dem, Green and Conservative – admitted their email accounts had been bombarded with constituents’ messages about precisely these issues. According to Robin Meltzer, the Lib Dem candidate, this was the biggest hustings in Richmond so far. Issues to do with the cuts, public services and the economy top the list of people’s priorities, but gauging from the debate last night, human rights, foreign policy, peace and justice, ‘defence’ and civil liberties come second.

The event was jointly organised by Richmond Stop the War, Richmond Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Kingston Peace Council. It was a fantastic example of three local groups with longstanding roots in the community working together to pull a crowd and hold politicians to account. If nothing else it will hopefully lay the groundwork for more activism and events after the election. 80 people packed out the London Welsh Rugby Club (rumour has it the choice of venue had something to do with the loyalties of the local Stop the War stalwart, Sam Oxby). Ben Jamal from Palestine Solidarity chaired the meeting deftly, putting the candidates on the spot.

Ben fielded a broad range of questions from the audience on three main topics: Palestine and Israel; nuclear weapons; military intervention and the war on terror. All the candidates – yes all of them – supported ending arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Outgoing MP and Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith argued that the UK needs to become less dependent on oil in order to stand up to its ally with a finger on the petrol pump. While this might suggest that Saudi Arabia is calling the shots and not the other way round, the Green candidate Andrée Frieze made the more general point that the thirst for oil profits is a driving factor behind the West’s wars. Goldsmith bigged up his Green credentials again when he pointed out that Somali piracy is a response to corporate plundering and polluting of the country’s waters.

Sachin Patel stuck to straightforward principles of non-aggression and diplomacy throughout the evening and seemed to speak from the heart, but his case was let down by a frankly apolitical attitude, constantly referring to the UN as our best chance of preventing wars. Of course international law is important and peace activists should seize on it at every opportunity, but we have to criticise the UN when it acts as a fig leaf for US dominance and big power rivalries. Treating the UN as the be all and end all will always be an elite solution that writes out of the equation the ‘third superpower’, the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people given expression in mass movements.

Returning to the question of arms deals, Robin Meltzer (Lib Dems) went a step further, saying there should be a ‘presumption of denial’ when it comes to Britain’s licensing of weapons: no arms should be supplied without investigating a country’s record on human rights etc.

On the question of Trident nuclear weapons, Meltzer again gave one of the fullest answers, but in this case revealed some of the weaknesses of his party’s pragmatic ‘middle way’ politics. By suggesting that the UK should keep at least one armed submarine on patrol, along with several other unarmed, dummy subs, he seemed to give politicians wary of anti-Trident sentiment an easy way out. While it’s true that decommissioning Trident would take time, as a political move Melzer’s suggestion would only blur the line between those in support of Trident and those against.

But the real news is that everyone on the panel except Zac Goldsmith (Conservative), claimed to oppose Trident one way or another; at the end of the day, they all think it should be scrapped. Maybe it was Walter Wolfgang’s booming voice when he asked the question that stiffened their principles. Sachin Patel (Labour) argued against Goldsmith’s false dichotomy between multilateral and unilateral disarmament, saying that Britain should be leading by example in international forums.

Perhaps surprisingly given the strength of public opinion, Palestine was where the candidates were weakest, diverging quite drastically from the audience. Both Zac Goldsmith and, surprisingly, the Green candidate Andrée Frieze, blamed Palestine as much as Israel for the conflict.

Goldsmith reverted to the myth that Israel is a fragile flame of reason in a sea of menacing Middle Eastern foes. He even used the David and Goliath image, flipping reality on its head so that we’re meant to believe Israel is the poorly armed underdog. Never mind Israel being the biggest recipient of US military assistance. Never mind its allegiance with the military junta which rules Egypt having crushed the revolution there. Never mind US support for the next biggest power in the region, Saudi Arabia. Never mind the fact that Israel’s long standing enemy, Syria (but under Assad, always passive in practice), is now strictly out of action, bogged down in a civil war fuelled by the West. Never mind that Iran is moving closer and closer to a nuclear deal with the US.

Both Goldsmith and Frieze tempered their support for Israel by insisting they were critical ‘friends’ with no time for the hawkish views of Netanyahu. Fair enough, but Israel will continue to move to the right as long as the West does nothing more than apologise for its outbursts of brutality.

There is clearly an audience for serious debates about peace and antiwar issues. And whatever happens in this election, these issues will be as contested as ever, if not more so given a new coalition government still finding its footing.

Richmond Stop the War Coalition reports on a night when ‘the audience was in the driving seat’

In a cold Richmond pub in January, this did seem like a great idea, however, the reality of it taking place never fully registered, until last night. I recently heard the wise words of John Rees again, a founding officer of Stop the War Coalition, “If you fight, you might lose. But what I can promise you, is that if you don’t fight, you will definitely lose”. If ever there was a decent argument for having a go, this has to be it.

Four candidates standing for election in the constituency of ‘Richmond Park’ sat in front of a crowd made up of Richmond Stop the War Coalition, Richmond + Kingston Palestine solidarity Campaign and Kingston Peace Council/CND’s supporters. Every chair, carefully arranged by London Welsh Rugby Club was taken. (Capacity: 120)

There was something quite electric about the combination. On a national level, Stop the War Coalition regularly calls demos on behalf of the three organisations, ‘Stop the War Coalition’, ‘Palestine Solidarity Campaign’ and ‘Campaign for Nuclear disarmament’. These events are huge and newsworthy nationally. Allowing this particular combination to be played out on a local level in Richmond, has cemented the bonds between the groups and created a new level of solidarity in the constituency.

Ben Jamal (Leader – Richmond + Kingston PSC) chaired the event. He put the audience in the driving seat (as we had planned, in that cold pub in January) and peppered the occasion with enough jokes for him to probably establish a sideline, as a local comedian. The only question left hanging in the air was, would he have the time?

Some said we’d never be able to build a Stop the War Coalition group in Richmond Upon Thames. There are misleading views and stereotypes about everyone, everywhere it seems. However, Chris Nineham, Stop the War Coalition’s  Vice Chair, said when the group was revitalised in 2009, “If you are passionate and dynamic and you believe in something, anything is possible”.

Richmond is the most densely populated area of educated people in London. The voting turnout is high. Many who have struggled to make sure they  live in this beautiful spot, have learned to defend it as their own. There is of course, as much social housing in Richmond as any other part of London and the idea   that everyone who lives here is rich or just cares about shopping is an increasingly unstable urban myth.

Tony Benn’s mother had connections with the Vineyard Church in Richmond, who run a food bank and a supportive environment for local homeless people. Benn spoke at our last Stop the War Coalition public meeting in Richmond with our national convenor, Lindsey German and brought in a crowd of well over one hundred people.

’Richmond Park’ constituency returned Jenny Tonge as their MP repeatedly, over eight years. She is without  doubt one of Palestine’s staunchest advocates, a GP by trade and part of the original set up, of the early 2002  local Richmond Stop the War Coalition group.

Supported by Canon Julian Reindorp, (the well-loved local vicar who DID politics) and Walter Wolfgang, this group did organise meetings and put in a decent attendance on 15 February 2003, as they got lost in a crowd of nearly 2 million people, in London’s Hyde Park. These original supporters are still with us and it was Jenny Tonge and Walter Wolfgang who stood on a Remembrance Day Stop the War Coalition stall, in Richmond last November in the  cold, handing out leaflets and chatting to the public.

So, now we have Zac Goldsmith as our sitting MP. He waxed lyrical at the hustings, about 15 February 2003 and the big march. He was angry, he said – as the then editor of ‘The Ecologist’ – furious in fact, about the folly, of an invasion on Iraq. I believe him. The sense of right and wrong with regard to this crazy part of history is palatable. Zac is interesting, as he is prepared to go against his own Government.

The Labour Party were represented by Sachin Patel, who seemed prepared to disagree with the current   Labour Party line on most things. “I don’t agree with nuclear weapons. I would scrap Trident”. Disagreeing with Walter Wolfgang in public would not be a task for   the faint hearted but this twenty-seven year old man has developed under Walter Wolfgang, who has been stuck into Richmond Labour Party since 1940.

Walter Wolfgang, who is Vice President of CND, was the only member of the public who genuinely didn’t need a mic last night, when he bellowed, “Do you think that the Trident weapon system should be scrapped and not replaced?” We stuck the mic in his face anyway, as there is something quite wonderful about the very foundations of a building shaking, as the question this  man has been asking, since before the inception of CND itself, reverberated around Old Deer Park. London Welsh Rugby Club is the spiritual home, not just for Welsh rugby fans but for those suffering from “Hiraeth” (Welsh: missing home) – Wales being the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan’s NHS and the Chartists and it remains an ardent, peace loving country – so, Walter’s words chimed perfectly within the fabric of the very walls, which hold London Welsh Rugby Club together.

Walter Wolfgang is living proof that if you ask the same question enough times, you may eventually get an answer. Trident replacement is firmly on the national agenda now, with the SNP party almost in a position to hold any Government to ransom, on this thought  alone. Supported by the Greens and Plaid Cymru, they may just about get their wish.

Although the Green Party formally share more policies in line with the beliefs of PSC, STWC and CND, there was an awkward pause when Andrée Frieze (Green) asked the Chair if she could pass on one of the questions, as she didn’t know the answer. It was on the subject of the value of Britain having nuclear weapons in relation to Britain’s military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robin Meltzer, (Libdem) who is skilled socially and addressed everybody who asked a question by name, has a penchant for human rights. So, he was thrilled to be introduced to John Reekie last night, the leader of Richmond + Twickenham Amnesty International. He marked out the differences in Tory and Libdem policy on human rights and reminded us that David Cameron wants to scrap the human rights bill and invent his own.

All of the candidates revealed that they did not follow PSC’s ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ campaign, in answer to a question from the public. All of the candidates professed their dislike of war and there was consensus among them that, war itself is a symptom of ‘political failure’. There was more than one maverick on the panel. The majority of views expressed, flew in the face of the individual’s party policies. “Not in my Name” it seems, has caught on just a little, since the Stop the War Coalition emblazoned these words on their own placards in 2003, during the biggest mobilisation of protestors in any one place in British history

Zac Goldsmith did say, towards the end of the evening, “I am not going to be led by pressure groups” in response to a question about the relevance of faith groups. I think he might find he will need to think again about that one, as we held the balance of power last night. And power is what he wants to hold onto in Richmond.

It is a human emotion, to feel enamoured towards those who are prepared to make themselves vulnerable (and in public). It was hard not to like the candidates who have clearly stayed up late, with far too much homework lately, having digested as much as possible on the issues of Palestine, the War on Terror and nuclear weapons. In that sense, our work was done before they walked through the door. So far were they, from their comfort zones, we could only offer hospitality in terms of complimentary water and Ben’s jokes.

The most telling moment probably came at the end of the evening, when we tried to usher them into the London Welsh Rugby Club bar. Although, they did hang around and chat to people after the event, a proper drink may have been one step too far, it seemed. After all, they were not at home. But we were.

Richmond Stop the War Coalition
Contact: Tel: 07534 557 125

Source: Richmond Stop the War Coalition

12 Apr 2015

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