The bar was set high, and Ed Miliband has cleared it

"An audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister."

The Labour leader took a risk today. There was a technical risk: he spoke without notes, which can go wrong in many ways. And the speech was long, which exponentially increases the danger of stumbling and losing the audience. But that is a small practical obstacle compared to the tactical gamble that his speech represented, which was – in effect – advertising itself as an audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister.

He didn’t set it out in quite those terms, but throughout the week his team has been allowing the idea to float around that this would be a defining piece of oration. The Miliband camp took the highly hazardous step of acknowledging that there had been flaws in the way their candidate presented himself and admitting that voters are under-whelmed by the Labour leader – or downright dismissive. So expectations were ramped up, which is the opposite of what usually happens. (The standard line at these conferences is “it’s only a speech, why is everyone so excited, of course it’s not a make or break moment.” Etc.)

So the Miliband operation set the bar high. Luckily for them, the Labour leader appears to have cleared it. He seemed much more confident than he has done on similar occasions in the past; much more in control of the mood in the room and much more assertive in delivering his message. He got a few good laughs in the right places. His theme - “One Nation” - was a pretty audacious raid on Tory language and, as a fusion of traditional left appeals to solidarity and a patriotic idiom more commonly associated with the right, it clearly has potential as a platform to reach out to a wide section of the electorate. His aides are busy now describing it as a radical vision. (That, of course, is something they always do.)

The obvious criticism was that Miliband is still travelling very light on policy and still skirts over the question of tricky spending pledges. It wasn’t exactly a macho demonstration of tough choices and a trampling of party shibboleths. (That really isn’t Miliband’s style.) He is wide open to the charge of policy flimsiness. No doubt the defence will come out that David Cameron was no more heavily freighted with practical policy at an equivalent point in his time in opposition. The mid-term challenge is to attract voters attention and sustain their interest in a way that makes them think they might be looking at their next Prime Minister. That was the explicit task that Ed Miliband set himself this week. Did he pass the audition? Too early to tell. But I suspect the party will come away more confident that they can talk about Prime Minister Miliband and the Conservatives will be a little bit less complacent in their assumption that no one is listening.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband acknowledges the applause after delivering his keynote on October 02, 2012 Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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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.