Democracy is the loser

The rebels' tactics may not produce a challenger to Brown, but the point has now been made that the

As the increasingly fractious Labour tribes gather for the party's annual conference in Manchester, the air is heavy with the poison of regret. What if Gordon Brown had called a snap election 12 months ago, before the polls and the economy engulfed him? What if Brown's critics had stood a candidate in last year's leadership election? What if Tony Blair had faced down the challenge from rebels over the summer of 2006 and refused to set a date for his departure? What if Brown had followed Robin Cook on to the back benches over Iraq? What if Tony had had the guts to move Gordon from the Treasury for his serial disloyalty? What if that fateful deal struck in an Islington restaurant 14 years ago had never been made?

Political parties are at their most successful when they look to the future and provide a vision of the nation's collective fate. In its present introspective state, the Labour Party can do nothing but look to the past. It is haunted as much by the years of glory that followed Blair's arrival in 1994 as the years of shame that followed the Iraq War nine years later.

New Labour was a break with history, an attempt to move beyond the narrative of decline that had dominated the party and Britain for so long. But there are lessons to be drawn from this long list of "what ifs", because the consequences continue to dog the present government.

It is instructive to consider what would have happened if Brown had ignored what the polls were telling him and gone for a snap election. He may well have lost, but the likelihood is that he would have scraped back in with a reduced majority. He would have faced precisely the same economic conditions he faces now.

Northern Rock would still have collapsed; the price of oil and the price of food would still have risen. He would still have faced the fallout from his decision as chancellor to remove the 10p rate of income tax. In all probability, his popularity would have plummeted and his party would have plunged into a frenzy of plotting against his leadership. Yet there would have been one crucial difference: Brown could have claimed a personal mandate from the British people. Ultimately, this might not have saved him (it didn't help Margaret Thatcher), but it would have undoubtedly enhanced his authority.

If there is one thread running through the set of hypotheses above, it is this: in each case, democracy would have been enhanced if events had gone the other way. As this magazine argued at the time, Brown needed to seal his mandate with the British people by calling an election as soon as was realistically possible after he took over as Labour leader. There can now be no doubt that ministers and ex-ministers with reservations about his capacities as Prime Minister should have put up a candidate against him last year. As it is, he has been elected by neither his country nor his party. There is a pattern here. As one senior minister close to David Miliband put it: "We have been anti-democratic and now it is coming back to haunt us. From the Granita deal, to the way we got rid of Tony and anointed Gordon without an election, it just looks like we don't really believe in democracy."

This is why the rebels' tactic of asking for leadership nomination papers is so significant. It may come to nothing in terms of raising a challenger to Brown, but the point has now been made about the importance of injecting some much-needed democracy into the party. It is also why Harriet Harman, who was elected deputy leader in a fair and closely fought contest, must play a central role in any moves to shore up the Labour Party. She alone in the cabinet has the authority that comes with having been elected rather than appointed to her post, which is why she would also have to be part of any delegation urging Gordon to fall on his sword.

Last-ditch show of unity?

At the time of writing, the appetite for ousting Brown as leader seemed to have abated, at least at cabinet level. The atmosphere is so intense that it would be foolish to predict what could happen even 24 hours hence, but those who would back a Miliband leadership challenge seem to have decided that this is not the right time to strike. They are now talking about giving Brown until next spring. The call for a last-ditch show of unity by John Prescott, Alastair Campbell, Glenys Kinnock and Richard Caborn published in this week's New Statesman (page 37) echoes the views of many in the party. Long in the planning, this intervention should not be seen as a knee-jerk response to the rebellion, but a genuine, if belated, attempt to head off the crisis.

Yet, if the party is to survive, it must begin to show a greater respect for democracy. Conference itself provides a telling example of the way the party's own institutions have been hollowed out by new Labour, leaving a husk that represents no one and has no effect on policy.

As delegates arrive in Manchester for the grotesque charade that passes for democracy in the Labour Party, it might be worth them pondering one more hypothesis. What if we wait until after a Tory landslide for the next leadership election? With a reduced and demoralised parliamentary party, Labour membership in steep decline and the unions in open revolt, it is by no means obvious who would replace Gordon Brown, especially when some of the best candidates would have lost their seats. Compared to this scenario, a leadership challenge early next year could seem very attractive indeed.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.