An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a position on the front line in Khazer. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The decision on whether to intervene in Iraq now rests in Labour’s hands

Cameron will need Miliband's support to win a vote on military action. But all the signs are that he will get it. 

It is just 13 months since David Cameron became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782. After his defeat over potential military action in Syria, 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 a year later, Westminster is again contemplating the use of force, this time to halt the murderous advance of Islamic State. The assertion of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, that the UK would play a “leading role” in the coalition assembled by the US was the clearest signal yet that parliament will soon be asked to give its approval to air strikes against the group in Iraq. One Downing Street strategist pointedly notes that Tornado fighter jets are already performing reconnaissance missions in the country – and they could easily shift to an offensive role.

While acknowledging the legal, technical and political obstacles, No 10 isn’t even dismissing possible action in Syria. Conservative sources downplay suggestions that parliament could be recalled as early as 25 September (“We’re not at that stage yet”) but some Tory MPs can already see the political advantages. “It would blow the Ukip conference out of the water,” notes one with Machiavellian relish.

After Barack Obama’s skilful forging of an international coalition, one that crucially includes ten Arab states, Cameron’s task is to construct a domestic equivalent. Having broken one of the first rules of parliamentary politics last year – that prime ministers shouldn’t call votes they are going to lose – the Conservatives are acting with greater diligence this time. Party whips, now led by Michael Gove, have canvassed opinion in the tea rooms and have concluded that Cameron’s own side, even when combined with the Liberal Democrats, will not be big enough to guarantee him victory.

Some of the 30 Tory MPs who voted against intervention in Syria are prepared publicly to support military action against Islamic State. One of the rebels, Sarah Wollaston, tells me: “Last time round, we didn’t have Arab League backing and we do this time. The intervention has to be led by local and regional powers; otherwise, it’s just seen as a vendetta against Muslims.” But most Tory rebels remain unmoved. John Redwood, who abstained on the government motion last year, bluntly says: “I am not persuaded that we should be bombing Iraq or Syria.”

It is Labour that will determine whether Cameron becomes the fourth successive prime minister to preside over military action in Mesopotamia. After thwarting the PM last summer, in what the Tories denounced as an act of betrayal (Labour sources maintain that no “blank cheque” was ever signed), the opposition is regarded with suspicion and enmity. But there is as yet no evidence that the two parties’ positions will diverge. Beyond opposing the deployment of “boots on the ground” (as the government does), Labour strategists emphasise they are “ruling nothing out”. One tells me the party has adopted a “bipartisan approach”, resisting the temptation to seek political advantage from the government’s often conflicting messages. Ed Miliband has supported the arming of the Kurds, British logistical support and, most significantly, targeted air strikes against Islamic State by the US.

Less than eight months before a general election, when partisan tensions are normally at their highest, some in Labour are even moved to rare praise for Cameron. One shadow cabinet minister commends his “patient multilateralism”, and another senior figure notes: “This is not a macho moment like in August 2013. He’s not doing grandstanding.”

Some of the loudest interventionist voices come from the opposition benches. Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister, tells me that the government should consider “opening back-channels” to the Assad regime in order to enable air strikes in Syria. Ann Clwyd, who served as Tony Blair’s special envoy to Iraq, says that it is “irresponsible” to rule out the use of ground troops ultimately to repel Islamic State. Were Miliband to oppose air strikes, he would face a rebellion greater than that over Syria, when four Labour MPs (Clwyd, Ben Bradshaw, Meg Munn and John Woodcock) refused to vote against the government motion.

His likely support for them should not come as a surprise. Not since 1935, when Ernest Bevin denounced his leader George Lansbury for “hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”, has Labour been a pacifist party. Unlike the extra-parliamentary left, Michael Foot was resolute in his support for the Falklands war in 1982. And though labelled as a peacenik due to his opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion and his sceptical stance on Syria, Miliband, too, stands in this internationalist tradition. In March 2011, invoking Britain’s failure to act during the Spanish civil war, he supported intervention in Libya to prevent a massacre of the innocents in Benghazi.

Rather than the dawn of a new age of isolationism, the Syria vote is now identifiable as an accidental pause. After Cameron’s defeat, senior Labour figures confessed that they were surprised by his abrupt rejection of military action. Those events raised the bar for parliamentary approval of intervention. But it is a bar that the Prime Minister, humbled by experience and shorn of bluster, is now in a position to clear. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.