David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron wants airstrikes in Syria - but fears Labour opposition

The PM believes that there is "no legal barrier" to action, but wants to "proceed on the basis of consensus". 

When David Cameron last summer became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782, many spoke as if an epochal shift comparable to Suez had occurred. William Hague, the then foreign secretary, considered resigning and told colleagues that he didn’t want to represent "a country that is not prepared to act". Paddy Ashdown lamented that the UK had lurched "towards isolationism". One Conservative MP told me after the vote: "We won’t be involved in military action for the foreseeable future and certainly not in this parliament."

But just 13 months later, parliament will vote today in favour of UK airstrikes against Isis in Iraq. Britain will demonstrate that it has not entered a new age of isolationism, and Cameron will regain some of the standing that he lost last year. But the issue of Syria has loomed large in the opening stages of the debate. To many MPs, there is little purpose in targeting Isis in Iraq without also doing so in its neighbour. Ken Clarke warned that the group's advance meant the border between the two countries was now merely a "theoretical line on the map" , while Peter Hain declared that allowing Isis to regroup in Syria after strikes in Iraq was "no answer". 

Cameron, who has pledged to give MPs a separate vote on any action in Syria, made it clear that he believes there is a case for action in the country, and that there is "no legal barrier". But he emphasised that he wanted to "proceed on the basis of consensus". In other words, he feared that he would not win Labour's support for intervention in Syria (unlike in the case of Iraq) and would risk a repeat of last summer's humiliation. 

He told MPs: “I do believe there is a strong case for us to do more in Syria. But I did not want to bring a motion to the House today which there wasn’t consensus for. It is better if our country can proceed on the basis of consensus. In this house there are many concerns about doing more in Syria. And I understand that.

“I don’t believe there is a legal barrier, because I think the legal advice is clear that – were we to act or others to act – there is a legal basis. But it is true to say that the Syrian situation is more complicated than the Iraqi situation. It is more complicated because of the presence of the brutal dictator Assad, it is more complicated because of the state of the civil war.”

In his response, Miliband raised three concerns over strikes in Syria. He argued that while there was "a strong legal argument for action" under Article 51 of the UN Charter, it would "be better" to seek a UN Security Council Resolution (which Russia would almost certainly veto); that the mission would require regional ground troops; and that "a lot more work" needed to be done on a "route map" for action. While not ruling out intervention, he has again set tough conditions of the kind that prevented British involvement last year. 

Milband also offered five succinct reasons why airstrikes in Iraq were not comparable to the 2003 war: the intervention was about supporting a democratic state, not overturning a regime; there was no dispute about its legal basis; it was a last resort; there was broad international support; and the use of British ground troops had been ruled out by the government. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's Eurosceptics should steer clear of loaded language

Phrases such as "wholesale importation" leave the impression Labour will not speak for migrant workers.

Nothing reflects Britain’s division over Brexit than the Labour party. Do we want soft or hard Brexit? What do we prioritise? The fractures within the party’s ranks is a portrait of the divisions splintering the country.

Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit helped it in the general election in appealing to everyone. It convinced Remain voters that they could hold the Tories to account while promising the Leave voters that the referendum decision would be respected. But now clarity is needed. 

The Labour leadership seems to be angling for a hard Brexit, wishing to leave the single market and customs union on the grounds that this honours the wishes of the 52 per cent. Ironically, they are at odds with everyone in this situation, from the general public – who favour access to single market over immigration controls – to a poll in LabourList showing that 72 per cent of readers prioritised inclusion within the single market.

Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm attitude to the EU is well documented. If the Labour Party are serious about their public ownership plans for the railways and energy, it’s likely they envision it being made difficult within the EU because of directives which create competition between the state and the private sector. There are unexplored alternatives to this, as seen in Germany and Italy where private companies are made and run the industries with the states acting as the major shareholders of the company. However it’s unlikely to see the hard left ever accepting this, given its disdain for both the private sector and the idea of it interacting with the state to deliver services.

But this is not all that should trouble progressives regarding the Labour leadership’s stance on Brexit. During a recent Andrew Marr programme in which he appeared on, Corbyn claimed that mass immigration had been used to denigrate the conditions for British workers, saying that there was a “wholesale importation” of workers from parts of Europe which would then undermine the rights of British workers. It’s an argument that has been regurgitated by British politicians consistently in recent years – but from the right, not the left.

The idea that migrants are taking British jobs and depressing wages does not hold up to evidence at all. The London School of Economics carried out a research which illustrated increases in migration from the EU did not result in depression of British wages. That’s not to suggest that wages have not stagnated, but rather the trend is linked to the financial crash in 2008, rather than migration. Corbyn’s defenders insist that there were no deliberate racist overtones in his argument, and that the villains are employers deliberately taking advantage of an easily exploited labour market. But the manner in which Corbyn framed his speech was worrying.

The reason for this is that Brexit has created an unbelievable sense of uncertainty, insecurity and fear amongst migrants. Their position in society is now being contested by politicians with different stakes in society to them. Xenophobic abuse – legitimised as an acceptable part of political discourse by Brexit – has been climbing swiftly. Immigrants are seen as threats to British jobs and that is a narrative consistently drummed out – not just since last year but for possibly the past decade.

This is not to say that Labour should not address how some employers might seek to cut costs by hiring foreign workers on a cheap rate. But phrases such as “wholesale importation” or even using the heavily demonised “mass migration” simply sketches the idea that Labour are swinging towards the hard Brexit voters, and in doing so leaving migrant workers to be defended by no one. If the intended idea was to castigate employers, it simply entrenched the idea of immigration as a problem. Rather than bringing British and migrant workers together, you know with that whole “workers of the world unite” idea, Corbyn’s framing of the argument keeps them pitted against each other.

If Brexit has shown us anything it’s that language matters in politics in how it transmits its message to people. Slogans such as “take back control” were attacks on multiculturalism and immigration, stoking white nationalism, even if the Leave campaign insisted it wasn’t about that. Likewise, Corbyn might insist it wasn’t about migrants, but his message sounded a lot like he was blaming freedom of movement for the suppression of wage growth in Britain.

Needless to say, Labour need a rethink on what kind of Brexit it pursues.