Labour will not easily escape the Iraq war

Blair cannot be forgiven because he appeared to understand the need for a new and different world
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The Independent Online

How do you not talk about the war? You could see the Government's dilemma in the Health Secretary John Reid's uncertain answers on the Today programme yesterday. On the one hand, he was desperate to sideline the whole issue as a question that concerned "only 10 per cent" of voters. On the other hand, he was equally anxious not to look as if he was underestimating, still less patronising, the Labour supporters deeply antagonised by the decision to invade Iraq.

The Prime Minister has accepted that he can never recover the confidence of those opposed to the war, but he can't as yet see a way of putting it to one side other than by reiterating the agonies he suffered in coming to the decision.

He's wasting his breath. It's not personal agonising that the public wants from Tony Blair. It isn't even the open acceptance that many people opposed the war on principle and still oppose it now. It is some sign of understanding, and hence contrition, of just why so many people feel so passionately about this decision even after the war is over, elections have been carried out, and America has re-elected its president and, to all intents and purposes, put the arguments over the war behind it.

Labour's leaders tend to see the question in tactical terms. There is, according to the polls and their own soundings, a limited percentage (Reid's "only 10") who put Iraq high on their list of concerns. The aim is to isolate that minority and move the focus onto the other domestic concerns.

Their difficulty is that the strength of anti-war feeling has not dissipated with time in the way they had expected. The original assumption was that the hostility was a direct reflection of events in Iraq. Once Iraq faded from the television screens and the news improved with elections and a tailing off of casualties amongst our troops, so the theory went, it would also slip from political consciousness.

At the same time, Labour strategists (including the Prime Minister) assumed that the opposition wouldn't be able to take advantage of the subject, since the Tories had initially supported the war and the Lib Dems would be caught in the classic problem of looking as if they were less patriotic than the Government and weren't giving proper support to our troops in battle.

But it hasn't unfolded in that way, not as far as the politics are concerned. Despite the charges of obvious opportunism, the Tories have managed to switch the argument between them and the Government from the rights and wrongs of going to war to the charge of misrepresenting the facts to the public in doing so. The Lib Dems have successfully built up an image of "principled" opposition to the war, avoiding the trap of seeming unpatriotic. Far from dissipating, the anti-war sentiment has remained hard at the centre and expanded outwards to take in the question of Blair and trust on a whole range of issues from privatisation of the health service to imposing top-up fees on university students.

The Prime Minister knows this perfectly well. He is too good a tactician not to. What he and his senior colleagues would dearly love to do is to isolate the war part and deal with other issues, arguing that Labour can be trusted with the economy and with health far more than the Tories, leaving the Lib Dems marginalised as a one-issue party.

The projection of the Prime Minister into the front of the campaign, and the "masochism strategy" of putting him up in front of his critics, is intended to shock-absorb the anger and rechannel it into a discussion of "issues" of immediate public concern - from hospital waiting lists to jobs and education. Given direct conversation with smaller and hand-picked audiences, goes the view from the top, people will naturally tend to talk of what interests them most - their own conditions.

Will it work? Only if you accept that the war is a "particular" or even a "peculiar" event. But that is not how a substantial proportion of the public sees it. They view the invasion of Iraq as not just morally wrong in itself but as a negation of everything they wanted in the new century - a world based not on force but on mutual agreement, an international order founded not on the hegemony of the one remaining superpower but on multilateralism.

Tony Blair cannot be forgiven because, in speech after interview, he appeared to understand, and give expression to, that view of a new and different world. Instead, he is seen as betraying it in a short-term desire to go along with Washington. He then attempted to cover his tracks with security and intelligence imperatives that never reflected the true course of the run-up to war.

Trust, says Michael Howard, is at the heart of the matter, and Labour seems to have implicitly accepted that. But actually, the word "trust" underestimates the problem the Government has. It is the sense of betrayal that is the root of the anger, a feeling that is then all too easily elided into a feeling of betrayal over the sell-out to all sorts of other interests from Rupert Murdoch to GM crop producers to George W Bush.

Until the Government comes to grips with that, they will never stem the molten lava of anger that flows from the volcano of Iraq.