Deposed: George Lansbury, the only Labour leader to have been forced to resign, pictured in 1937. Photo: Getty
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Muzzling Blair’s dogs, “Jihadi John” and cricket’s awkward squad

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

It has become impossible to pick up a newspaper or log on to Twitter without learning of assorted Blairites denouncing Ed Miliband. Many complaints are about the admittedly ill-advised proposal for a mansion tax. But they form part of a wider narrative in which Labour peers and mostly anonymous MPs describe their leader as “laughable”, “abysmal” and “complacent” and sing the dreary refrain that he must get “closer to business”. One brave MP told the Times that Miliband needed to see a psychologist and would probably “go down in history as one of the worst leaders”. By some oversight, the paper failed to name him.

Less than eight months from a general election, what do these people think they are up to? Most voters are poorer than they were in 2010. The NHS is close to collapse. The senior party in the coalition is deeply divided. These three factors alone should take Labour to victory, whatever Miliband’s faults, and the chances of success won’t be enhanced by internal denigration and disunity. The chances of a change this late in the electoral cycle are close to zero. Labour will either win under Miliband or lose under him.

The Blairites clearly prefer the losing option. They are now the wreckers, not the hard left, which didn’t rock the boat as Tony Blair rose to power. In his farewell conference speech, Blair said: “Whatever you [Labour] do, I’m always with you . . . Wanting you to win.” If he meant it, he should call off the dogs and tell Miliband’s detractors to stay silent.

Don’t drop the pilot

Labour did once overthrow a leader – or, more precisely, cause him to resign – and only weeks before a general election. At the 1935 annual conference, George Lansbury, agonising over how to reconcile his Christian pacifism with opposition to fascism, was publicly told by his union adversary Ernest Bevin to stop “hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”. When the delegates supported sanctions against Italy, which Lansbury regarded as economic warfare, his position became untenable.

The results are not encouraging for those who now think it wise to change leader. Although Labour increased its number of seats, it lost the election. Admittedly, the caretaker leader during the campaign was Clem Attlee, who went on to win the subsequent leadership contest and stayed for 20 years. You could just about imagine Alan Johnson, with his natural diffidence, as an Attlee figure. But Johnson is 64; Attlee was a mere 52. A last-minute change to a palpable stopgap wouldn’t increase Labour’s vote.

Labour gets grand

“Grandees turn on Miliband” was the Times headline over one of many eager reports in the Murdoch press. “Grandee” goes back to 15th-century Spain, where it was used to distinguish the more senior noblemen from the merely rich. In Britain, it was used during the civil war for the Cromwellian army officers, drawn from the landed gentry, who opposed the Levellers. Now it is the kind of word you only ever see in newspapers – one can’t imagine Miliband telling Nick Robinson “I’m worried about the grandees” – and it seems an odd collective noun for those quoted in the Times report, who include Tessa Jowell, John Mann (MP for Bassetlaw) and Lance Price, a former Blair press aide. I had always thought that, on Planet Journalism, only the Tories had grandees. Perhaps the extension of the term to certain Labour “supporters” tells us something.

Jilt Jihadi John

The media were never likely to heed demands from prominent Muslims to stop using “Islamic State” for the terrorists who have just murdered a second British hostage, if only because the suggested alternative, Un-Islamic State, would have created the confusing acronym US. But the press could surely stop referring to the front-man in the murder videos as “Jihadi John”. The name supposedly originated with the hostages who, because of their jailers’ British accents, called them “the Beatles”. The source of this tale is obscure and, as
“Jihadi John” seems to speak with a London accent, it sounds inherently improbable.

“Jihadi John” sounds glamorous, romantic and swashbuckling, particularly, I should think, to the ears of some adolescent Muslims. What about “Subnormal Steve” or “Dopey Donald” instead?

No team in I

Kevin Pietersen is clearly a somewhat abrasive and perhaps mixed-up individual, which I would attribute to childhood canings from his father. But whatever their opinions on his newly published autobiography – which describes the former England cricket coach Andy Flower as “contagiously sour, infectiously dour” and several former team-mates as bullies – millions of people are talking about it. Cricket’s special appeal is that, over long periods of play, it highlights in narrative form the personalities of individuals and how they interact with others. Think of Fred Trueman, Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne, all men with personal shortcomings who fascinated the public.

Geoffrey Boycott shows that cricketers do not need to be entertaining players to attract such attention. Those who blamelessly “play for the team” are a greater threat to the game’s future than awkward mavericks such as Pietersen. Fortunately, someone like him usually emerges. Ben Stokes, the young all-rounder who broke his hand punching a dressing-room locker, shows great promise.

Tribute cones

The number of cones on the motorways this autumn seems greater than ever. They often stretch miles beyond any visible roadworking activity. Is it time to bring back the cones hotline? John Major, I think, now qualifies as a national treasure but the cones hotline is the only thing most people remember him for. It’s not much of a legacy compared to the NHS or the Open University, but wouldn’t it be a nice gesture for a grateful nation to honour him by restoring it? 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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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.