Why John O'Farrell is a smart choice for Labour in Eastleigh

In danger of being ignored as the coalition parties slug it out, the decision to select the author and broadcaster as its candidate means Labour will now enjoy significant media coverage.

Labour's decision to select John O'Farrell as its candidate in the Eastleigh by-election is being hailed by many commentators as a game-changer. It's worth noting, however, that while there is much affection in Westminster for the author and brodcaster (best known for his 1998 book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter), it would be surprising if more than five per cent of voters in the constituency have heard of him.

This said, not only will O'Farrell's humour and warmth endear him to voters ("There is a great deal of hard work ahead. But first I am going to the pub", he tweeted last night), his decision to stand means that Labour, which was in danger of being ignored as the coalition parties slugged it out, will now receive far more local and national media coverage. With the polls as tight as they are (the first survey by Lord Ashcroft gave the Tories a three-point lead, the second by Survation gave the Lib Dems a three-point lead), a stronger-than-expected Labour performance could gift the seat to Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings. But having declared itself to be the party of "one nation" and having vowed to win over voters in the south, Labour has no choice but to campaign hard. Were it to finish in fourth place behind UKIP, as one poll suggested was possible, it would be a disastrous result for Ed Miliband.

Since this is a by-election, Labour has no incentive to tacitly advise its supporters to vote Lib Dem (as Ed Balls and Peter Hain did in 2010) but a slim Tory victory would be a reminder, as I noted last week, that tactical voting will be an issue at the next general election. The Conservatives are in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats and half of their 40 target seats are held by Clegg's party. If Labour wants to prevent the Tories decapitating scores of Lib Dems, it will need to think carefully about how it approaches these contests.


Author and broadcaster John O'Farrell was selected as Labour's candidate for the Eastleigh by-election last night.

George Eaton is 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.