A spot of Reading then Heathrow

The Green London mayoral candidate reports from Reading and her party's conference plus fighting air

Conference in Reading is remarkably quiet compared with recent Green Party get-togethers, or perhaps it just seems that way after leaving behind the excitement of the London election. The campaign is snowballing now, and the first full hustings took place on Thursday, hosted by the Green Alliance. You can watch the videos and judge for yourself how we all did on

Away in Reading, we've been enjoying the international flavour of the conference. The 'Global Voices' panel on Friday afternoon saw the Venezuelan Ambassador to the UK, Samuel Moncada discuss global human and environmental rights with Dr Abdullah Abu Hilal from the Palestinian West Bank town of Abu Dis, a Jerusalem suburb on its way to being officially twinned with my home town of Camden. Also on the panel, talking about the ongoing problems with Shell in the Ogoni region of Nigeria, was human rights lawyer Patrick Okonmah.

Meanwhile, back in London, two new reports have been published that finally demolished the government's paper-thin economic case for expansion at Heathrow. Friends of the Earth have released their paper, “Heathrow expansion – its true costs”. This shows the massive faults in how the consultation documents value the impacts of expansion. The report shows that, even if you accept the government’s ethically dubious framework that reduces all the impacts of a new runway to amounts of money, the numbers still don’t add up.

The figure used to calculate the cost of climate change damage isn't the Stern Report’s 'business as usual' figure of £53 per tonne of carbon dioxide, but just £19 - a figure that assumes climate change itself will be minimised thanks to strong policies from the government. FoE calls this 'circular reasoning of the worst kind'. Assuming that expanding an airport does count as 'business as usual', correcting this error almost triples the climate costs from £4.8 billion to more than £14 billion, and wipes out the government's 'net benefit' at a stroke.

The FoE report also finds flaws in calculations of the future cost of flights. In particular, the most ridiculous assumption in the whole consultation – that the price of oil “falls from $64 per barrel in 2006 to $53 per barrel in 2030”. I read this and (after I picked myself up off the floor) went to check the oil price today - it was $95.

The second report, published by consultants CE Delft who were commissioned by campaigners HACAN to look more closely at the figures, is also damning of the government’s economic analysis. They found that gains to business and employment were being similarly inflated by not taking into account the fact that money, if not spent on via the expanded airport, would be spent elsewhere in the local economy.

These studies, exposing the economic con-trick BAA and the government are trying to pull, are important since these supposed benefits are their last positive argument, set against a vast pile of negative consequences of expansion. The population of London are virtually up in arms about the extra noise and air pollution that would result from more flights, and the climate change argument is completely clear – we can’t fight climate change and build more airports, full-stop.

We now have just a few more days until the close of the consultation. Like most such consultations, the questions have been put together in such a way that it’s very difficult to answer them and actually get your opinions across. The campaigners suggest answering all the questions with a simple ‘No’ and I'm urging everyone to do the same before 27th February. See the Stop Heathrow Expansion website for more on what you can do before then, including coming to the big rally in Westminster on 25th February.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.