I spoke at an IPPR/Channel 4 fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference yesterday evening, representing The Times (who are not my employer and never will be, but to which I do contribute - a distinction I didn't feel I could sensibly get around to explaining) on a discussion panel about international policy, and specifically 'Conflict, arms and human rights'. It was, in many ways, illuminating. I'd forgotten - not having been to one for 15 years - that you run into all sorts at a Labour Party meeting.
One questioner prefaced his contribution by saying, "The comments from the gentleman from the Murdoch press are an insult to Labour Party members" - which as the comments in question were a strong endorsement of the policies of the Labour government on Iraq was a mite peculiar. Then there was the elderly lady who asked how we proposed to stop Israel from attacking Syria and Iran, a scenario I thought a little unlikely when Israel had been at some pains to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon and Gaza. But the most enterprising contributor of all took exception to my comment that we could best assist Sub-Saharan Africa by ensuring its integration into the global economy, specifically by removing trade barriers to its primary products, for I knew of no case where a nation had lifted itself out of poverty by a strategy of import-substitution such as had been common in newly-independent African states. He insisted that it had worked in Tanzania - a country whose per capita income fell on average by 0.3% a year from 1965 to 1986 (by which time President Nyerere's disastrous economic management had run its course), and where direction of labour involved uprooting entire communities and herding their inhabitants into planned villages.
The other members of the panel were Emma Naylor from Oxfam; a Foreign Office minister, Bill Rammell; and a representative of the IPPR, David Mepham, who was strongly anti-Israel but had difficulty adducing a coherent reason for his position that was factually correct. I have had critical things to say about Oxfam and other NGOs on trade policy, but Emma Naylor was good and I was happy to agree with much that she said about the export of arms. (In short - this is my view, not necessarily hers - the problem is not so much the high-tech transfers, but the small arms that are impossible to track and that become widespread in failed states. Solving the arms transfer problem requires putting back together the institutions that make up a state and civil society. If we leave failed states, they will become rogue states, and the humanitarian imperative of removing arbitrary authority in those states will become a strategic necessity for us as well.)
Nearly forgot: there was the inevitable drone who demanded we feel his pain at the illegal invasion of a sovereign state (i.e. Iraq). I can understand why a consistent conservative - say, Malcolm Rifkind or Douglas Hurd, architects of the betrayal of Bosnia - would place such a premium on the sovereignty of even a gangster-regime such as Saddam Hussein's, but I still have trouble getting used to it from people who claim to be progressives and internationalists.
I met a parliamentary candidate afterwards called Kirsty McNeill, who is standing against the Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes in Southwark and Bermondsey. She seemed highly sensible (i.e. she agreed with me), and if I thought it would do her any good she would have this blog's endorsement. I gave her my Simon Hughes anecdote in return: I met him in the London mayoral election campaign as he was standing outside London Bridge station early one morning handing out leaflets to rail commuters. It apparently hadn't occurred to him that, by definition, those of us who travel into London each day do not live in London and thus do not have a vote in London elections.