Authorising military action is one of the most important decisions that an MP can take and not one that I took lightly last week. I, along with 66 other Labour MPs, voted to support further action against Isis in Syria. Why?
First, Isis poses a clear threat to British people at home and abroad. Thirty British holidaymakers were murdered in Tunisia in July. Seven UK terror plots have been foiled by our security services this year. For the past 14 months, at the Iraqi government’s request, we have carried out air strikes to defeat Isis in Iraq, conducting more than 1,300 missions with no civilian casualties. It makes no sense to turn our planes back at the Syrian border and allow Isis to regroup and rearm there.
Second, after the Paris terror attacks, the UN Security Council – including non-permanent members such as Venezuela and Chile – unanimously passed Resolution 2249, encouraging countries to take “all necessary measures” to defeat Isis. France and the US, our closest allies, called on us to work with them to defeat our common enemy. Solidarity means working alongside your friends to defeat your enemies. I believe it was right to heed their call.
Third, the West’s inaction in Syria has failed. As Labour’s shadow international development secretary, I visited Lebanon in September and saw the appalling humanitarian crisis that Bashar al-Assad’s reign of terror has caused. A quarter of a million Syrians have died. Four million have fled their country. Almost eight million more are internally displaced. The economy is based on kidnapping, looting, corruption and arms and people smuggling. There was another important reason for my decision. In August 2013, parliament voted against backing military action in Syria against the Assad government. The vote was prompted by a sarin gas attack on civilians in eastern Damascus, which, according to US figures, killed 1,400 people, 400 of whom were children.
With the shadow of the Iraq War looming large over both parties, this was an understandable but unforgivable mistake and the one vote that I deeply regret.
At that point, the war in Syria had claimed 100,000 lives and displaced two million people. We will never know the cost of the action we did not take in 2013. We can only count the terrible cost of our inaction. Since then, Isis has established a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. We have the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War and a war without law and without end in Syria.
Military action is only part of the solution. We need a fresh diplomatic effort to bring peace to Syria. The Vienna talks with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran at the table, for the first time, offer Syrians the hope of a ceasefire, a timetable for Assad to go and a schedule for elections.
Yet there is no hope of negotiating with Isis. Military action is required to stop the torture and murder of Syrians and Iraqis. We need to stop the flow of fighters, finance and arms to Isis’s headquarters in Raqqa and to disrupt its propaganda machine that poisons the minds of even some of our young people to commit appalling acts. Neither Syria nor Iraq will have territorial integrity as long as the Isis caliphate exists. It is a fascist organisation that must be defeated. The longer we leave it, the harder it will be.
The Syria vote was a bruising, divisive debate for Labour. No single wing of the party has a monopoly on values, principles, or passionately held beliefs. Every MP I know entered politics to commit their lives to public service and the public good. MPs must be free to use their conscience to vote in the best interests of their constituents. In doing so, they should not have to face intimidation, bullying and death threats.
Individuals from smaller, hard-left parties with no loyalty to Labour are now operating in the party. Hilary Benn’s speech was rooted in the bedrock of Labour’s values: solidarity, internationalism and a desire for justice and peace. Yet a Stop the War blogger argued that Isis is “far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity of the International Brigades” than Hilary. These people do not reflect the values of Labour voters or the British public in general.
The day before the Syria vote, Alan Johnson launched the “Labour In for Britain” campaign. More than 200 Labour MPs, including the entire shadow cabinet and Jeremy Corbyn, have signed up to support the drive to keep Britain in the EU, regardless of the results of David Cameron’s “renegotiation”. The trade unions, particularly the GMB, deserve much credit for seeing off the Prime Minister’s desire to weaken workers’ rights. Europe continues to be a Tory bête noire.
Cameron has floundered on the negotiating terms and the timetable and instructed his party to remain neutral on the referendum. Labour In for Britain will be the only national party political campaign for us to remain in the EU. Tory Eurosceptics are announcing their dissatisfaction ahead of any renegotiation; Boris Johnson and Theresa May flirt with Brexit to build political capital for their leadership bids. Both have much to gain from a brief encounter with the Tory party’s isolationist right wing.
The EU is the most successful peace process the world has seen. The EU boat has been rocked by economic, political and migratory instability of late but the prospect of our country tearing itself away from this engine for growth, investment, security and higher environmental standards is unthinkable. Our European neighbours warn of the consequences for the entire project if the UK were to leave. The rise of the far right in France and of nationalist parties in the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary and Poland could lead to a race to the exit for others.
The message is simple: if Labour is divided, the Tories rule.