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Mary Creagh: Labour has become like Millwall Football Club – nobody likes us but we don’t care

The leadership campaign has been dragged to the left, says Mary Creagh. Unfortunately, the electorate has moved to the centre right - and voters think Labour doesn't understand their lives.

The Labour Party finds itself in a horrible place as parliament rises for the summer break. A dozen weeks since our overwhelming election defeat, Labour MPs are full of gallows humour and quiet despair – because, in choosing our new leader, we are making four of the same mistakes we made in 2010. First, like Gordon Brown after his defeat, Ed Miliband stood down as leader immediately. He hoped that the party could have “an open and honest debate about the right way forward, without constraint”. That debate has not materialised and we are having a family row with the Labour selectorate instead of a discussion with the British electorate.

Second, we are once again in a drawn-out leadership race that will exhaust the candidates, while David Cameron chillaxes on three summer holidays and Tim Farron and Nicola Sturgeon rally their troops for the battles ahead. Whoever is elected as leader will be drained by the campaign but have to start work right away. The first big test will be a speech to the trade union congress, which starts the day after the winner is announced on 12 September. The leader must then appoint a shadow cabinet, prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions, rebuild morale and write a cracker of a conference speech.

Third, we have a left-wing candidate on the ballot “for balance”. During the 2010 leadership election, David Miliband “lent” nominations to other candidates to ensure that Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham could take part. This made the transfers of voting under the single transferable vote system less predictable and, arguably, deprived David of the three or four extra MPs’ votes he needed to win. David’s legacy to Labour, which made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot “to have a broad debate”, has dragged the leadership campaign to the left. Unfortunately, the electorate has moved to the centre right.

When I was still seeking MP nominations for the leadership, party members trolled me on Twitter, asking me to put Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot. I don’t believe in nominating someone I don’t intend to vote for. Corbyn’s presence on the ballot and his storming performances at hustings and in the constituency nominations have raised the prospect that he might win. That prospect, I’m sure, is as uncomfortable for him as it is alarming for the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Fourth, the centre ground remains a toxic place, with anyone who suggests that we listen to the public branded as a Blairite or a Tory, including, risibly, Harriet Harman. A colleague remarked to me, “You can blame Tony Blair for many things but you can’t blame him for winning three elections” – and, through those victories, lifting a million pensioners and a million children out of poverty, building a fairer workplace through the minimum wage and holiday entitlement, stopping mass murder in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, greening the economy and improving the lives of millions of people in the poorest countries of the world.

The public barely registers Labour’s leadership election, so rich in the narcissism of small differences. When we do make the news, people notice our internal divisions on the same issues that led them to reject us on 7 May: economic credibility, immigration, welfare. The challenges of technological change, housing and the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean are forgotten as the party debates whether Jeremy should have a seat in the shadow cabinet, or whether mothers make better leaders. People long for a centre-left party that speaks to the challenges of their lives, offers hope for their families and charts a course through choppy waters.

Significant international challenges lie ahead. As progressives, we must apply our values to shape Britain’s place in the world. Labour must resist the siren call of the left, which is busy learning the wrong lessons from Greece’s latest bailout. As the Labour MEP Richard Corbett points out, the Greeks had already had one long-term (30 years), low-interest (1.7 per cent) bailout from the IMF and the eurozone and the private sector had written off half of Greek debt. The Syriza/far-right coalition’s chaotic approach has led the Greek economy – which had returned to growth – to plunge back into recession, with the summer holiday period wiped out as tourists cancel their trips.

Yet those on the British left have branded the situation in Greece – Syriza’s referendum, capital controls and bank closures that have left crucial medical supplies running short – as a “coup” by Germany. They have started wondering whether Britain should stay in the EU, ignoring the social, economic, environmental and security gains that UK membership has brought us.

Labour is not yet in the place where we can say with confidence: “The only way is up.” Early findings from the “lessons learned” report commissioned by Harriet suggest that voters think that Labour simply does not understand their lives. We are in danger of becoming the political equivalent of Millwall Football Club. Their chant? “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

Andy Burnham has diagnosed one problem correctly – Labour has lost its emotional connection with the electorate. The solution is not to talk about rebuilding that connection but to do it. People vote not solely on the basis of which leader they would like to go down the pub with but on hard-headed calculations about which party is best for the economy and their family.

Yvette Cooper has rightly diagnosed that Cameron has a woman problem and she has a huge range of ministerial experience. Liz Kendall has told the uncomfortable truths that the party needs to hear. Both rightly talk about the need to campaign from the head and the heart. I am still undecided as to which woman I can see as a Labour prime minister in 2020, but I’ll be putting one of them at the top of my ballot as our best chance of winning.

Mary Creagh is the MP for Wakefield

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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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.