Britain's Straw Faces a Challenge over Iraq
LIANE HANSEN, host:
British voters go to the polls this Thursday for general elections that will determine whether Prime Minister Tony Blair receives a mandate for a third five-year term in office. Blair's support for the war in Iraq has dogged his Labor Party, and the opposition to the war has inspired several independent candidates for Parliament to run on anti-war platforms. Craig Murray, Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, is trying to oust his old boss, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in his home constituency of Blackburn. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited with the candidates in Blackburn and filed this report.
ANTHONY KUHN reporting:
Like much of Britain's industrial north, this former cotton mill town in Lancashire has been a Labor Party stronghold for over half a century. The party points out that it's established many of the schools, community centers and other benefits the townspeople enjoy today. Jack Straw has represented Blackburn in Parliament since 1979 and commands an estimated 9,000-vote lead. But he's not taking anything for granted.
Mr. JACK STRAW (Foreign Secretary, Great Britain): It's Jack Straw.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Mr. STRAW: Hi, ya.
Ms. JOYCE GRENSHAW (Pensioner): Hello, Mr. Straw. Come in.
Mr. STRAW: How are you?
KUHN: Straw stops at the home of 77-year-old pensioner Joyce Grenshaw(ph). She tells Straw she was disturbed by an anti-war pamphlet she received.
Ms. GRENSHAW: It really got to me, you know.
Mr. STRAW: Right.
Ms. GRENSHAW: And I thought `Now what do I do?' I thought it would--`Who do I vote for now?' I mean, under Labor, I have got a decent pension. I've got a home that I can, you know.
Mr. STRAW: Right. Sure. Sure. Sure.
Ms. GRENSHAW: And me age gets me a bit of that pension. And now we're just a little bit--I'm a-wavering.
Mr. STRAW: Right. OK. So who...
Ms. GRENSHAW: I'm a-wavering about voting for you, I will admit, you know.
Mr. STRAW: Sure, and I understand that. But I'd be really grateful for your support. All right? If you don't get a Labor MP back in Blackburn, you'll end up with a Conservative, and they would have gone to war anyway.
KUHN: Since both Labor and the opposition Conservative Party backed the war in Iraq, Labor is concerned that the war issue will either prompt disaffected voters to sit out the election or defect to independent, anti-war candidates like Craig Murray, one of Straw's most disgruntled former employees.
Mr. CRAIG MURRAY (Candidate for Parliament): May I give you a leaflet, sir?
Unidentified Man #1: OK. Thanks.
KUHN: Not everyone recognizes Murray as he hands out pamphlets to Muslim men emerging from a local mosque.
(Soundbite of traffic noise)
KUHN: Yaku Blenbarra(ph) is unhappy about the Iraq War and plans to vote for Murray.
Mr. YAKU BLENBARRA (Voter): The Labor Party did lying, especially Tony Blair and Jack Straw among the party. Well, I came 1960 here in this country, we were supporting Labor on those days. But they now is finished. Labor is gone.
KUHN: Murray has also campaigned against what he claims is a US policy known as extreme rendition.
Unidentified Woman: Let's make sure that ...(unintelligible) we can go out into the street.
KUHN: At his campaign headquarters, Murray said that as ambassador to Uzbekistan beginning in 2002, he learned that the US government was secretly delivering prisoners in chartered planes for interrogation by Uzbek security forces.
Mr. MURRAY: I've seen intelligence material from the Uzbek security services routed through the CIA which purported to show links between the Uzbek opposition and al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. As I learned more and more about this dreadful regime, I realized that this information was being tortured out of people, in effect.
KUHN: Murray says he saw photographs of Uzbek dissidents boiled alive by security forces. He protested to the foreign office about it, adding that the intelligence produced under torture was worthless. He says Jack Straw discussed the issue with a head of British military intelligence known only as C.
Mr. MURRAY: I was told that Jack Straw and C had personally discussed the issue, and Jack Straw had decided we would continue to get this torture material, and so I should shut up because the matter had been as high as it could go.
KUHN: Murray was fired last year, accused of trading sex for British visas, a charge he denies. His larger concern is that US attempts to establish a strategic base in Central Asia are supporting the repressive Uzbek regime and fueling a Muslim fundamentalist insurgency.
(Soundbite of engine starting)
KUHN: So Murray started up an electoral insurgency of his own, riding a 1950s army fire truck, wearing a three-piece suit and blasting his campaign tune through a loudspeaker.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Now hit the road, Jack Straw, and don't you come back no more, Jack Straw, Jack Straw...
KUHN: Across town, Jack Straw stumps in a silver Mercedes-Benz van, surrounded by supporters wearing `We back Jack' badges. Straw says Britain opposes the use of torture and the policy of rendition. He adds that Murray was fired not for opposing torture but for bad management.
Mr. STRAW: Our policy is very clear, which is never to support the use of torture, not to seek intelligence used by torture and not to condone the use of torture in any circumstances, and that's the case. And Mr. Murray, I don't think, can point to one example where that policy's been broken.
KUHN: Several high-profile visitors have come to Blackburn to support Straw, including most recently outgoing Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.
Mr. STRAW: It's a simple reality that within a very large Muslim population, who would traditionally have voted Labor but who perhaps have felt more strongly on the issue of Iraq because they are part of the Ummah, that it's quite appropriate that I should be supported by other colleagues as I have been very actively on this occasion.
KUHN: Whether or not Straw hangs on to his home turf, British political pundits say that the Iraq War has damaged his prospects to continue as foreign secretary. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.