The fight between the Miliband brothers: an update

On real differences, foreign affairs, “pandering” and the key question of this contest.

This is an unscientific, inconclusive and incomplete collection of thoughts on the Labour leadership, after several weeks abroad during what may have been the calm before the storm of the Labour leadership race and its conclusive stages.

It's not rocket science to say that the race is now strictly between the brothers, David and Ed Miliband, about whom you can read at more length here.

What is much less clear is which of them is ahead. There have been a few attempts at polls and evidence-based analyses, none of them adequate because of the unique, unpredictable and, in some cases, unreachable electorate of ordinary party members and trade unionists as well as parliamentarians. Therefore some of the judgement on the contest has to be based on the "feel" of how things are going here in Westminster and beyond.

It is worth pointing out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a real difference between the political messages of the brothers. This week and last, Ed has issued a number of statements, through articles and interviews, clearly aimed at: a) reiterating his message that the party must make a break with the New Labour "establishment" and b) appealing to "lost" Liberal Democrat voters in despair over Nick Clegg's personal and ideological alliance with David Cameron.

Tomorrow evening, however, David will respond with a speech being billed by his team as "the most important of his campaign so far". Word is that it will be seen, if not intended, as a political "attack" on his younger brother, warning against "pandering" to the party's core vote. If that is indeed the overriding message of the speech, it is likely to underline his support among many of the party's pragmatists.

But it may not be enough to win the race. For if Ed has managed to avoid too much criticism for being a "Brownite", David has not been as successful in shedding the equally (if not more) unfair label of "Blairite". Some suspect that this is because David is privately unwilling to disown Tony Blair over the one issue that more than any other will define his reputation: Iraq. Why else would David not have made it clear -- as is surely true -- that, had he been foreign secretary in 2003, he would have opposed the invasion?

And yes, foreign policy is key here. After all, it was David, not Ed, who was the lone voice in cabinet speaking out against UK support for the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon that finally did for Blair's premiership in the end. The idea that David Miliband, who forged a "post-Blair foreign policy" as foreign secretary, is an uncritical Blairite is wrong. And yet Miliband himself appears not to do enough to dispel the myth.

Perhaps this is for the same reason that Alastair Campbell refuses to "apologise" for an Iraq invasion about which he, too, is rumoured to harbour private doubts: to do so would unravel the Blair legacy. But David Miliband has to be brave and bold, and cut loose any baggage that is holding him back -- including (and ironically, given that Ed was if anything more responsible for it) much of New Labour's economic record, especially on regulation -- if he is to ensure victory.

Meanwhile, Ed could be criticised, if not for "pandering" now, at least for failing to speak out against New Labour orthodoxies when he was in power and, technically at least, at the heart of the New Labour establishment. Personally, I believe Ed when he says he was privately opposed to the 2003 invasion. But David might well be forgiven for thinking that the position was a lot easier to hold among friends than in government. Indeed, if Ed felt so strongly about it, he could have -- say -- written a letter to a newspaper, or made his position clear publicly in some other way.

Now, he may have to do more to convince the party and the electorate that he will take tough decisions beyond the end of this campaign. Having said that, Ed is surely right that the Labour leadership cannot go on defining itself merely as being against Labour values, as Tony Blair did far too much, and far more than David, to be fair.

Criticism and devil's-advocate arguments aside, that one of the Milibands will win is reason for celebration for Labour.

It has become fashionable to say that none of the candidates is ideal, and that may be true. But there is no doubt that the Miliband brothers are the most talented Labour figures of their generation. At the moment, it is, as the cliché goes, too close to call between them.

The key question remains this: which of the candidates can best persuade the electorate of the social-democratic case? May the best man win.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for 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.