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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.