Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference in Perth on March 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour will not change EU referendum stance if Ukip win European elections

A senior party source rejects Farage's suggestion that Miliband would be forced to guarantee a vote. 

The main reason why Nigel Farage is desperate for Ukip to win next month's European elections is that he believes victory for his party will force Labour to guarantee an EU referendum. As he said recently: "The way to get a referendum on Europe is to beat Labour in May and force Ed Miliband to promise a vote on Europe if he becomes Prime Minister. If both the big parties promise a referendum, we should get one. That's why all our concentration is on Labour in the next few weeks."

To date, Miliband has said that he would only hold a referendum in the event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels, a condition that he believes is unlikely to be met. The result is that the Tories are able to boast that the only way to guarantee an in/out vote on EU membership is to vote Conservative in 2015, an attack line that Farage recognises has the potential to do increasing damage to Ukip. Given the likelihood that Labour will be the largest party after the general election (not least thanks to the divided right), Farage needs Miliband to U-turn if he is to avoid losing EU withdrawalists to the Tories. 

But when I asked a senior Labour source if there was any prospect of this, he told me: "The idea that Labour will change position is as unfeasible and ill-thought out as everything else Farage says." He pointed out that both the shadow cabinet and the PLP (with the exception of mavericks such as Kate Hoey) were "united" behind Miliband's stance and said a future Labour government would not allow itself to be "paralysed" by an arbitrary referendum. Instead, it would promote "the national interest" by only holding a vote in "the unlikely event of a further transfer of powers" and focusing on tackling the living standards crisis. 

While Farage managed to force Cameron to promise a referendum against his wishes, there is no chance of him enjoying a similar success with Miliband. Unlike the PM, the Labour leader does not lurch, he does not U-turn. When a stance is adopted, typically in the form of a detailed speech, it is maintained. With Labour far more united than the Tories on Europe (a reversal of the situation in 1975), there is also no prospect of Miliband coming under comparable internal pressure to Cameron. 

If Ukip do win the election, as the polls suggests is increasingly likely, the Labour leader will speak again about the need to restore trust in politics and to address the root causes of the party's support. What he will not do is promise an EU referendum that is neither in his interests nor those of the country. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.