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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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.