Even silence from the Labour frontbench on the Iranian protests was preferable to the subsequent vocalised equivocation, argues Robert Philpot

Last weekend Emily Thornberry broke the Labour leadership’s virtual silence on the new year protests in Iran.

It would have been better had she not. The shadow foreign secretary’s words – which suggested it was impossible to tell who the ‘white hats’ among the demonstrators were – simply illustrated the Alice in Wonderland view of the world which has become the party’s foreign policy on Jeremy Corbyn’s watch.

Of course, the protesters spoke with disparate voices and expressed a range of grievances; from endemic corruption, to the regime’s appalling human rights record and woeful stewardship of the economy there’s no shortage of things to be angry about in Iran.

But it shouldn’t be hard for Labour to express clearly, forcefully and without equivocation whose side it is on in Iran.

The protests appear to have been initially driven by economic concerns – president Hassan Rouhani’s latest budget contained a further tightening of the austerity screws in a country where one in four young people are out of work and 40 per cent are estimated to live in poverty – and, unlike the last major bout of unrest in 2009, to have not been primarily an urban, middle-class, student-led movement. Instead, it is working-class anger which seems to have ignited the demonstrations which spread through the kind of rural areas and religious small towns which have hitherto been the government’s strongholds.

As the Iranian journalist and novelist Amir Ahmadi Arian wrote in the New York Times last week, Iranians are also tired of the manner in which those who have done well under the ayatollahs now flaunt their wealth: ‘Iranians see pictures of the family members of the authorities drinking and hanging out on beaches around the world, while their daughters are arrested over a fallen head scarf and their sons are jailed for buying alcohol. The double standard has cultivated an enormous public humiliation.’

They are angry, too, that while Tehran imposes swingeing cuts on subsidies for the poor, it is also – both directly and through its proxy army, Hezbollah – fighting and funding a series of bloody conflicts abroad – including in Syria, where Iran has helped to salvage the murderous Assad regime.

Given his own anti-interventionist instincts, one might have expected Corbyn’s sympathies to have been engaged by protesters chanting slogans such as: ‘Leave Syria alone, think about us.’

However, the Labour leader’s opposition to foreign wars only appears to involve those fought by his own country and the United States. Indeed, he has a troubling history where it concerns the medieval theocrats who run in Iran, not least accepting up to £20,000 to present programmes on their international mouthpiece, Press TV (a station now thankfully banned by Ofcom).

As the protests subside, the regime is showing its customary concern for human rights, locking up an estimated 3,700 people.

The Labour party, with its once-proud internationalist tradition, has meanwhile lost yet more of its already depleted moral authority.

The high ranks of incompetence

Theresa May’s special talent for colourlessness and rank incompetence was on display once again in this week’s cabinet reshuffle. To engineer a situation in which Boris Johnson, David Davis and Chris Grayling all remain in post but the quietly competent Justine Greening ends up walking is quite an achievement. Leaving aside that Greening – a young, comprehensive school-educated, LGBT woman who grew up in the north – might seem to tick all the diversity boxes the prime minister was supposedly so keen to check, her treatment underlined one of May’s least attractive qualities: her spitefulness. The prime minister has supposedly never forgiven Greening for opposing her ideologically driven, muddled-headed pre-election plans to expand grammar schools. With her former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, goading and cheering her on from the wings, the prime minister took her revenge and, once again, revealed what a petty individual she is.

Correlation not causation

Steve Richards has followed his excellent account of Gordon Brown’s premiership with a fascinating retelling of the David Cameron years. The first episode, which aired this week, details the countdown to the former prime minister’s fateful and fatal decision to offer a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. Despite strenuous efforts by some of his former aides to suggest otherwise, a mix of narrow political calculation and arrogance appears to have driven the process. The former was perhaps best captured by the veteran Tory cabinet minister, Ken Clarke, who told Richards sardonically: ‘It never crossed David’s mind he might lose. He’d never lost anything in his life and he wasn’t going to lose this.’


Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot