Labour's Iraq war wounds reopened in leadership race
LABOUR'S internal feud over the Iraq war was rekindled yesterday as leading candidates were accused of having a "Damascene conversion" after finally admitting the conflict had been a "mistake".
• David Miliband said the war should not become an issue in the leadership race. Pic: Getty
Both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband used interviews to distance themselves from a conflict which was opposed by thousands of the same Labour members who will be voting in the forthcoming leadership campaign.
Their comments prompted a terse reaction from leadership favourite David Miliband who said yesterday that Iraq should not become an issue in the race. Asked why his brother and Balls appeared to be trying to use the war to "score points", the former foreign secretary said: "That is something you would have to ask them about."
The re-emergence of the conflict in the first stages of the campaign comes seven years after Tony Blair sent in British troops, prompting more than a million people to protest on the streets of Britain. The most vehement criticism of the decision was made yesterday by former education secretary Balls, who was an adviser to Gordon Brown at the time.
"It was a mistake. It was an error. It wasn't just thousands of people lost their lives, it is also millions of people who lost trust in us because they didn't think that we did it in the right way," he said. "There weren't weapons of mass destruction, the evidence wasn't sound so we should say loud and clear, in retrospect: 'We got it wrong.'"
Ed Miliband, who – like Balls – was not an MP at the time, added: "I was pretty clear at the time that I thought there needs to be more due process here."
He said he believed more time should have been given for weapons inspectors to do their work. "The combination of not giving the weapons inspectors more time, and then the weapons not being found, I think for a lot of people it led to a catastrophic loss of trust for us," he said.
Left wing leadership contender John McDonnell – a long-standing opponent of the war – said the comments had come too late.
"I welcome this road to Damascus conversion from Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, but regret that it is so late in the day. If they and others in key positions had had the courage to stand publicly with all of us against the war at the time we might have been able to stop it happening."
Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: "We should always respect a sinner who repenteth, but it is a pity that those who now regret British involvement in the illegal war against Iraq were not more vociferous before military action took place."
The sudden re-emergence of the conflict into the campaign brought a guarded reaction from David Miliband, who, unlike his brother and Balls, voted for the conflict.
"While Iraq was a source of division in the past, it doesn't need to be a source of division in the future," he said. "Iraq was a big issue at the 2005 general election, but the vast majority of MPs and candidates I have spoken to this time say that while it was a big issue then it was much less of an issue in 2010. I said during the election campaign that I thought it was time to move on."
The former foreign secretary used a speech later yesterday to concede that the Labour Party had become "disconnected" from both voters and its membership.
A total of five candidates have so far put their names forward for the leadership post: the Miliband brothers, Balls, Andy Burnham, McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
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