Labour leadership candidates at the GMB hustings on June 9, 2015 in Dublin. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What does potential military action in Syria mean for the Labour contest?

Foreign policy will become a defining issue as Jeremy Corbyn declares his opposition to air strikes against Isis. 

In 2013, it was Labour that prevented UK military action in Syria. Should Britain now intervene, as proposed today by defence secretary Michael Fallon, it will be Labour that enables it. After the stunning Commons defeat in the last parliament (the first time a government had lost a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782), David Cameron will put no motion before the House unless it is certain to command opposition support. It would require just six Conservative rebels for the Prime Minister's majority of 12 to be wiped out. 

Figures as senior as Crispin Blunt, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, and Julian Lewis, the chair of the defence select committee, have today expressed heavy scepticism over targeting Isis in Syria. Lewis warned that such action would aid President Assad: "In 2010 the government wanted to remove Assad without helping al-Qaeda or similar groups that subsequently became Daesh. Now we apparently want to remove Daesh but without helping Assad. These two things are incompatible. It is a choice of evils."

By contrast, Labour has today signalled its preparedness to suppport military action. Having previously opposed the extension of air strikes from Iraq to Syria, Harriet Harman said that the party would look "very, very seriously" at any proposals to "tackle the growing horror of Isil". In the Commons, shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker set out Labour's conditions for support: "We all need to be clear about what difference any action would make to our objective of defeating ISIL, about the nature of any action, its objectives and the legal basis. Any potential action must command the support of other nations in the region, including Iraq and the coalition already taking action in Syria."

But the decision on whether to support intervention will likely fall to the next Labour leader, who will be announced on 12 September. The prospect of air strikes in Syria means that foreign policy, hitherto almost entirely absent from the debate, will become a significant issue. Jeremy Corbyn has become the first to respond, declaring his opposition to any action: "Terrorist attacks on British citizens will not be prevented by bombing parts of Syria from 30,000 feet. The US is already bombing Syria and this has not stopped ISIL.

"Two years ago I voted against bombing Syria when the enemy was the Assad government. I oppose bombing Syria when ISIL is the target for the very same reason – it will be the innocent Syrians who will suffer – exacerbating the refugee crisis.

"We need to cut off the supply of money and arms that is flowing to ISIL, some from our supposed allies in the region."

Should his three centrist rivals instead take the stance adopted by Harman, Corbyn will be gifted a new dividing line. Liz Kendall, who has called for the 2 per cent defence spending target to continue to be met, is regarded as the most hawkish candidate. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham have said little on the subject in the past but are likely to now devote greater attention to it.

Though the leadership contest has been treated as a sideshow in recent weeks, the modesty of Cameron's majority means that, in cases such as military action, the new opposition leader will play a pivotal role. As the Prime Minister is all too aware, his room for manoeuvre will be determined by the victor. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle