In just a matter of weeks, the war in Ukraine has become the biggest European conflict many of us will have witnessed in our lifetimes. It is the largest deployment of troops in Europe since the second world war. The refugee population has already reached 3 million, with many more internally displaced, and the unfurling humanitarian crisis is characterised by the deliberate targeting of civilians.
While Vladimir Putin may have wished to exploit divisions and weaknesses in Europe and the US, instead these nations have shown a remarkably united front, pursuing coordinated diplomatic and economic action and providing military support to Ukraine. However, throughout the unfolding crisis, UK public opinion on issues like sanctions and the humanitarian response has been miles ahead of its government. The Conservatives’ approach has been marked by compromised interests, a lack of compassion and incompetence. It is Labour that has pushed the government to take deeper and more decisive action on issues of great import.
On the issue of sanctions, the Conservatives are clearly compromised. Their party has well-documented links with Russian oligarchs – from Boris Johnson’s cosy friendship with Evgeny Lebedev to the estimated £1.93m received in donations to the party since he became prime minister. As a result, they have been slow to act.
The world watched as European nations seized superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs, but the UK dragged its feet and debated whether to give foreign owners of UK property as much as 18 months to declare their interests. By contrast, unencumbered by such conflicts of interest, Labour has continually called for sanctions to go further and deeper – from expanding the list of individuals and goods subject to sanction to reducing the time allowed to register the beneficial ownership of property in the UK. These are issues that have been on the Conservatives’ radar since at least 2016, when David Cameron made anti-corruption a priority, yet they have consistently failed to act.
The need for a humanitarian response to the conflict in Ukraine has been treated as if it were an inconvenience to the Home Office – which in normal times is bent on trying to criminalise asylum seekers and expand the government’s powers to remove people’s citizenship. Ukrainian refugees seeking refuge in the UK have been subject to restrictive policies and bureaucratic processes. Despite this, Tory MPs continue to mendaciously claim that the UK is doing more for refugees than any other nation in Europe. This is just not true. It is Labour MPs, like Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, who again are leading the charge and putting pressure on government to provide simple, unbureaucratic and safe routes to the UK for Ukrainians who wish to come here – just as they were for Syrian and Afghan refugees before them.
Labour will need to maintain this vigilance. The impacts of the conflict in Ukraine will be far reaching – including for the UK. The government is already trying to blame the cost of living crisis on the conflict. We must not let it do this. We must not let it wipe its hands of more than a decade’s worth of policies that have contributed to the rising cost of energy, falling real wage growth and the decimation of our public services. And we must not let the Conservatives off the hook for their failure to deal with these problems, now and in the future.
Labour must work constructively with the government where it can – as it has done on supporting the provision of military assistance to Ukraine – but it must also continue to hold government to account where it is compromised and incompetent. As the situation in Ukraine evolves this will be critical in the short-term to the humanitarian, military and sanction responses. And in the longer term, it will be essential to supporting Ukraine’s reconstruction, standing up to authoritarianism, upholding international law and ensuring accountability for the war crimes we are now witnessing.
Labour’s starting point on domestic and foreign policy is its commitment to social justice and cooperation. These values are needed more than ever, at home and abroad.
Image credit: Flickr/Mike Maguir