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.

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Exclusive: Labour MEPs call for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as leader

Letter demands Corbyn's departure and attacks his office for "promoting" the work of the Leave campaign. 

Labour's MEPs have called for Jeremy Corbyn to resign in the latest challenge to his leadership. In a letter sent to Corbyn and leaked to the New Statesman, Glenis Willmott, the chair of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP), wrote: "We find it hard to see how any Labour leader can continue in that role if they do not have the support of their MPs." Corbyn yesterday lost a no confidence vote among the Parliamentary Labour Party by 176 to 40. The letter also attacked the leader's office for an "official Labour briefing document" which "promoted the work of Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart for the Leave campaign."

The demand for Corbyn's resignation is described by sources as the "majority position" of Labour's 20 MEPs. Their stance could prove crucial if the leader is not automatically included in any new contest (a matter of legal dispute) and is required to seek 50 nominations from MP/MEPs (20 per cent of the total). 

The letter reads: 

"The European Parliamentary Labour Party met today for its first meeting since the referendum and concluded that we should send you this letter today.

"The EPLP has always striven to have a loyal and constructive relationship with our party leader, and we have worked hard to cooperate with you over recent months. However, we have very serious concerns in the light of Labour's defeat in the referendum campaign.

"Responsiblity for the UK leaving the EU lies with David Cameron. That being said, we were simply astounded that on Friday morning, as news of the result sank in, an official Labour briefing document promoted the work of Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart for the Leave campaign.

"Labour's loyal and dedicated teams of activists had just spent weeks on the doorstep and on street-stalls making the case to remain in the EU and countering leave campaign arguments. Yet you and your office authorised a briefing that put the whole Labour campaign on a par with two Labour politicians who had been appearing for weeks alongside right-wing politicians, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

"Separate from the referendum issue, it has become clear in recent days that you do not have the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party. We find it hard to see how many Labour leader can continue in that role if they do not have the support of their MPs.

"So it it with a heavy heart that we urge you, for the sake of the Labour Party and for the people in our country who need a Labour government, to reconsider your position as Labour leader."

Yours sincerely,

Glenis Wilmott MEP

On behalf of the European Parliamentary Labour Party 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.