Kurdish Peshmerga fighters monitor the area from their front line position in Bashiqa, north-east of Mosul on August 12, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will the UK follow France and arm the Kurds?

One of the questions facing David Cameron as he returns from his holiday. 

In a fine demonstration of his party's internationalist principles, François Hollande has announced that France will supply arms to the Kurds to support their fight against Isis. The statement issued by his office said: "To meet the urgent needs voiced by the Kurdish regional authorities, the head of state decided in liaison with Baghdad to ship arms in the coming hours." It is support that the brave but under-supplied Peshmerga ("those who confront death") badly need.

Hollande's announcement has coincided with the return of David Cameron, who has cut short his holiday in Portugal by a day and will chair a meeting a Cobra today at 1pm. One question that will likely be on the agenda is whether Britain will follow France in arming the Kurds. At present, support is limited to flying military equipment on behalf of Jordan to the regional government. 

Hemen Hawrami, the Presidential Adviser for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Leadership Council, has made it clear that much more is needed. Asked if he wanted military support from Britain, he told ITV News: "Absolutely. We don’t need troops on the ground. We need advisers. We need aerial support and we need armament of peshmergas. Because IS by taking over most of the weaponries of five divisions of Maliki’s army, they are outgunning Peshmerga forces by modern armoured vehicles they have, by the different machines they have. What exactly we need is anti-tank missiles and armoured piercing weapons system in order to defeat them on the battlefields."

Strikingly, he warned that a failure to defeat Isis could lead to terrorist attacks in Britain: "According to your Home Office, you have 500 passport holders within IS right now so they are not only a threat to Kurdistan but also a threat coming back to Britain and the EU. Kurdistan is the first defence line for Britain if they want to fight and they do want to fight for IS. We do believe it’s the right time right now for Britain to join the US in airstrikes. It’s like the time of what Britain did in 1981 when John Major saw the mass exodus of the Kurdish people, there is a mass exodus now of Yazidis and Christians. I think this is the right time again for Britain to intervene."

The moral and strategic case for arming the Kurds is clear, but it will be far harder for Cameron to justify not recalling parliament (something he is keen to avoid after last summer's Syria debacle) if direct support is provided.

Today's Guardian reported that the government may avoid arming them since "[this] may be a step too far for the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition". When I asked a Lib Dem spokesman about this claim, he told me: "The government's position is we're not offering military assistance at the moment, we're doing the heavy lifting on the humanitarian side". He added that he would not start "speculating" on other possible options. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses