Why Miliband is right to sit on the fence on Syria

Politicians, far more than commentators, have a moral and a legal duty to proceed with caution.

In his response to David Cameron's statement on Syria, Ed Miliband signalled that he was neither with the hawks urging US destroyers towards Damascus nor with the Stop the War protesters (addressed last night by Diane Abbott) declaring "hands off Syria!" He refused to "rule out military intervention" but also insisted that he would not be pushed into a decision today. "I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today," he concluded. Cameron needed to explain how intervention would affect Britain's wider stance on Syria (is regime change the de facto aim?), the UN weapons inspectors needed to report and provide "compelling evidence" that the Assad regime was responsible for the Ghouta massacre, and the approval of the Security Council needed to be sought (although, as he rightly noted, a Russian or Chinese veto should not be a bar to action). Until all of these conditions are met, it is too early to say whether military action is justified. 

For this stance, he is inevitably being denounced as a fence-sitter, as a flip-flopper, unfit to be leader of opposition and certainly unfit to be prime minister. But in a political culture that too often prizes certainty above all else, Miliband's honest expression of doubt was immensely refreshing (as well as in line with public opinion). Many of the same commentators who have openly struggled to reach a position are now denouncing the Labour leader for his equivocation. But politicians, far more than columnists, have a moral and a legal duty to proceed with caution. How many of the 412 MPs who voted for Iraq now wish that they had sided with those who called for the inspectors to be given more time? 

At some point in the next week, Miliband will need to decide whether to support Cameron's plan to take military action. But until then, who can argue with his assertion that it "is right to go about this process in a calm and measured way"? As he noted in the most important passage in his speech, "the basis of making the decision determines the legitimacy and moral action of taking action". Whatever stance Miliband takes, it will be infinitely more credible for being reached with patience rather than haste. In a repudiation of Tony Blair, who, in the infamous words of the "Downing Street memo", shaped the facts around the policy, he declared: "evidence should precede decision, not decision precede evidence." If I was leader of the opposition, I would want to wait until all the facts were in - and that is what a prudent Miliband is doing. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the New Statesman centenary party at Great Hall on June 20, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.