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US airstrikes on Syria leave Labour hopelessly divided

Jeremy Corbyn denounces Donald Trump's intervention but deputy leader Tom Watson supports it.

In December 2015, as David Cameron's government prepared to strike Isis in Syria, Labour was dramatically split. Jeremy Corbyn opposed the intervention but his shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn and 10 other shadow cabinet ministers supported it.

Donald Trump's decision to launch airstrikes against Bashar-al Assad has left Labour similarly riven. As the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats backed the action, the media waited for an opposition response. But the first shadow cabinet member to react was not Corbyn or his shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry but Tom Watson. After being called by the Birmingham Post and Mail's political edtior Jonathan Walker, Labour's deputy leader backed the strikes, calling them "a direct and proportionate response to a clear violation of international law by the Syrian regime".

Watson, who personally assured Cameron in 2015 that he would support intervention, added: "It's clear from the nerve gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun earlier this week that President Assad had retained a chemical weapons capability, contrary to what was agreed in 2013.

"Indiscriminate chemical weapons attacks on civilians can never be tolerated and must have consequences. It's vital that the United States is now clear about its intentions and that the whole international community works towards a political settlement in Syria."

As journalists continued to wait for Corbyn's response, other Labour voices backed the air strikes. The party's backbench defence committe said: "The US action overnight was proportionate and should have Labour's full support." Hilary Benn tweeted: "Let's hope Syria will now think twice before deciding to gas its own people again. Priority must be humanitarian assistance for civilians."

At 11:19am, more than three hours after the Conservatives and Lib Dems had responded, Corbyn issued a statement (on which Watson was not consulted). "Stop criticising Corbyn's slow response," tweeted Labour MP Michael Dugher, who was sacked from the shadow cabinet last year. "It takes time for Seamas to run the draft statement by the Kremlin, Stop the War + the Morning Star".

As expected, Corbyn, who has opposed every western military intervention in recent history, did not support the strikes. He warned that "unilateral military action without legal authorisation or independent verification risks intensifying a multi-sided conflict that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people". Though his condemnation of the US was more restrained than in the past, his position was unambiguous.

Corbyn's stance has left the shadow cabinet once more hopelessly divided. Nia Griffith, the shadow defence secretary, was consulted and expressed her support for military action before her leader opposed them. Labour sources estimate that most MPs and at least half of the shadow cabinet back the strikes. Corbyn has been left appearing isolated as no other senior figure has publicly echoed his stance.

It is on foreign policy that the Labour leader's views are more determined than any other subject. Corbyn, who has long deferred to shadow chancellor John McDonnell on economics, has spent much of his campaigning life denouncing western military action. Until 2015, he was chair of the Stop the War Coalition, a group reviled by most Labour MPs. As long as Cobyn remains leader, his party and shadow cabinet will be fatally split on foreign policy.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear