At Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, our co-chair Jessica Toale spoke on an SME4Labour panel alongside Salman Shaikh, LCID’s David Taylor and GMB’s Gary Smith about what the Labour Party can do to support Ukraine.
I come to this topic with two hats – the first, as co-chair of Labour Foreign Policy Group with a view on the policy responses taken by the UK government and of the impacts kicked up by the conflict. The second, as a newly elected councillor in London’s West End - an area which includes Mayfair, a large recipient of dirty money from Russian and other oligarchs.
So what can the Labour movement do to support Ukraine?
The first thing to say is that Labour’s instinct to date has been right.
Labour called for deeper and faster sanctions on Russia when the Tories, clearly compromised by Russia money within their own party, dragged their feet. We watched European nations seize super yachts as the UK government debated whether to give overseas owners of property 18 months to register their interests. This was so disappointing as transparency was an issue I worked on as long ago as 2013 ahead of the G8 in the UK and something David Cameron claimed it was a priority of his in 2016. By contrast, the Labour Party, unencumbered by the same conflicts, called to expand the list of individuals and goods subject to sanctions and reducing the time allowed to register the beneficial ownership of property in the UK.
Labour also got it right on the humanitarian response. The Tories treated the need to provide a response to a growing number of Ukrainian refugees as an inconvenience. This was unsurprising from a Home Office bent on criminalising asylum seekers and turning public opinion against the lawyers helping them to protect their human rights. Refugees coming to the UK faced bureaucratic and restrictive processes while the Government claimed to be doing more than any other nation. It was Yvette Cooper who pushing for safe, simple, unbureaucratic routes to the UK – just as she had done for Syrians and Afghans before.
What more can we do?
Firstly, we must work constructively with government where we can – on the humanitarian and military response – but also hold them to account where its approach is compromised or incompetent.
Secondly, we must also move from crisis mode into campaign mode. This is a long-term crisis and we must begin to take a view on the long-term reconstruction of Ukraine, including thinking seriously about the shape of a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine. This also includes helping Ukrainians document war crimes being perpetrated by Russia soldiers. The Russian army is highly unprofessional and we have seen throughout history, including in Afghanistan, egregious breaches of international conventions during conflict.
Thirdly, we must seek to do more at a local level in the UK. Local councils are at the coal face of the refugee response, and Labour controls nine of the eleven UK core cities. Westminster is currently supporting 1053 refugees through the homes placement scheme and providing other services such as homelessness support and primary school places. Labour needs to continue to advocate for the support local government needs - without eating away further at the aid budget - as well as continue to agitate for safe and legal routes to the UK, the right to work and for certainty once the 6 months period after resettlement ends.
Local governments can also play a role in tackling dirty money and the use of shell companies to maintain a foothold in the UK’s property markets. My own ward houses four of the 99 properties listed in the Annex of a Chatham House report on kleptocrats in the UK, and another 15 are located across Westminster. Westminster Council recently launched a campaign against dirty money, which includes looking at the use of compulsory purchase powers to reclaim assets bought with dirty money, particularly in extreme cases where there are council tax arrears or other tax irregularities.
Finally, the Tories have started using a line that it is crisis in Ukraine that is causing the cost of living crisis. While it is undoubtedly a factor, so too are Brexit, COVID and 12 years of Conservative austerity that have undermining our economic fundamentals. We can’t let them off the hook for that.
Jessica Toale is co-chair of Labour Foreign Policy Group, a barrister and a former Political Advisor to two Shadow International Development Secretaries.