A night of failure

My negative take on the results.

Sorry to be so negative the morning after the election, but here is my initial, sleepy reading of a largely unreadable result: it has been a miserable failure for pretty much everyone.

Labour failed to retain its majority and failed to emerge as the largest single party in this shiny, new, hung parliament of ours -- something some of the polls had suggested, and some Labour strategists had been hoping for, until only a few days ago.

The Liberal Democrats failed to translate their "surge" into seats and failed to "break the mould" of British politics -- more like a medium-sized dent. To win fewer seats than they did in 2005 is embarrassing.

And the Tories failed to win even a small majority, despite Gordon Brown's unpopularity, the worst recession in decades, the biggest financial crash in a hundred years, the expenses scandal, Lord Ashcroft's millions, Bigotgate, the various Labour leadership coups, and the fact that they were up against a party that had been in power for 13 long years. The dawn of Dave? Not quite. (Oh, and when Cameron says that Labour has "lost its mandate to govern our country", he is right. The problem for him is that he hasn't won a mandate to replace it. In the end, four and a half years of "modernising" leadership just wasn't enough . . .)

Another failure, perhaps the biggest failure of all, has been the democratic failure. It is a national disgrace that voters were turned away from polling stations, disenfranchised during the closest general election in 36 years. We have, in the words of the Electoral Commission chair, a voting system that is "Victorian" and "not fit for purpose". In various corners of the country, democracy failed on 6 May 2010. Will we ever again be able to send election monitors abroad with their heads held high?

UPDATE: Actually, it hasn't all been bad. Great to see success for Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion -- and the election of Britain's first Green MP. And I'm delighted to see the humiliating defeat for the neo-fascist Nick Griffin and the BNP in Barking. Perfect!

UPDATE 2: Here also are my predictions from last night, which, I think (!), still hold true:

* No party will gain an overall majority -- parliament will be hung. (Seeing as how I predicted a hung parliament nearly a year ago, it would be odd to pull back from that prediction now.)

* Ed Balls will retain his Morley and Outwood seat.

* Turnout will be higher than 70 per cent -- again, a prediction I made a while ago (on LBC, in an interview with Iain Dale!) and one I'm sticking with.

* The Conservatives will emerge as the largest single party.

* Labour will come second, not third in the popular vote. Its vote share and number of seats will exceed the 1983 totals.

* Gordon Brown will still be PM at 1pm on Friday.





Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.