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Alison McGovern: Do I regret my 2013 vote on Syria? This is what actually keeps me up at night

No one can know for sure what would have happened if we intervened in 2013 in Syria. But we do know we are not doing enough now. 

My phone is in my right hand. My left hand is at my temple.

I am listening to a voice scream ever louder down the phone line at me. But I know that however much the shouting goes on I will reply calmly. I will explain my point of view. She will not like it, but that is not the point. I am entitled to my view; to use the words I wish.

And I won’t stumble because the person I am speaking to has lost control, or at least might sounds as though they have done so to the listener.

This conversation is not pleasant. But the fact is, we are on live radio, and I volunteered to give this interview. And I wouldn’t be the first person that Julia Hartley-Brewer has attempted to brow-beat. I did know it was coming. I did agree to the interview knowing that.

But there was a part of me that hoped the subject matter at hand would mean, yes, hard questions, but equally, an acceptance that there are no easy answers. 

Syria. A country in which there has been such brutality, such outrages to human dignity that I would persist through any number of hours of unpleasant interview to draw attention to its plight. Radio presenters can take shots all day long. If it keeps people talking about Syria, then fine.

And of course. Of course interviewers want to ask about 2013. We had a chance to vote for military strikes following Assad’s use chemical weapons over 3 years ago. In the House of Commons, we turned down the chance to back David Cameron and Barack Obama then. Look at what has happened since - death and displacement beyond imagination. Isn’t it natural to ask the politicians who voted against if they regret that vote now? Would you regret it? Would you regret not trusting Cameron then?

So, when I am challenged on that point, I understand the urge of some to ask, do you regret it: yes or no? Yes or no. Yes or no. Yes. Or No. I myself have had over three years to ask myself that question. Yes or No. Yes. Or no. I have lived with that choice every day. Never fully knowing if there should be blame or not. Always contemplating what might be my own grievous fault.

Do I regret it, then? If only there were a "yes or no" answer. To have an answer would mean knowing all the consequences if we had in fact voted to take action in 2013. Would we have had the political will to match military action with sufficient humanitarian protection? Finding the balance is hard. There is still today not enough co-ordination between the armed forces – who can uniquely change the balance of risks for Assad – and those who work to deliver vital life-saving equipment and to rescue civilians. And I am sure that this was the case back in 2013, too. I do not know if the UK would have made the right choices.

Lives could have been saved, perhaps, but there would have been lives lost too. No one has a god’s-eye view. No one can know.

And, practically speaking, the Tories in power since 2010 have ridden on, rather than enhanced, the UK’s global reputation. When Labour was in power, we made the Department for International Development an institution, and legislated for aid spending. With the Tories' failure on refugees, and their focus on using aid as so-called "soft-power" - rather than as an end in itself - they have steadily undermined our standing in relation to the humanitarian imperative. So, backing the Tories rarely fills me with confidence.

We will never know. There is no answer.

However, this is no council of despair. We have to be informed by the past, but we do not have to be bound by it. Just because we cannot have an all seeing, god-like view of our past decisions, it does not mean we cannot challenge the British government to do better now.  

If you are feeling in despair watching the scenes from Syria, here are three things that the British government could now be doing in our name. 

Firstly, the Prime Minister should come to the House of Commons and present a strategy to protect civilian life in Syria. This means getting aid out of the UN warehouses in the region, and by opening up humanitarian corridors, or creating safe zones, or using airdrops, getting this aid effectively delivered – especially vital medical supplies. It means working out how to stop the bombing, using no-fly or no-bombing zones. It means getting vulnerable people out of Syria who need life-saving medical care to a hospital that can treat them.

It means maintaining, above all else, the international humanitarian law. Hospitals, schools and emergency services are not legitimate targets, even in a warzone. This principle protects us all and must be defended.

Secondly, we should maintain our stance on accountability. There are already experts building up evidence which can be used in future prosecutions. These efforts must be supported by our government. It is not enough to say: "One day, Assad will face justice." We must start now to make it so.

Thirdly, we must change our position on refugees. There are very vulnerable Syrians who need care and protection to stay alive. We have not done enough. Britain has said that we will remain opening and welcoming to the world, despite Brexit. But this is not evident when we have closed off routes to support those who most need refuge in our care. This approach must change before our standing in the world is irreparably diminished. Let us resolve to back the UN scheme for resettling vulnerable Syrian refugees, in the knowledge that the families of the children whose lives we could save will pay us back ten-fold in their efforts for our country if we showed this faith in them.

We can attempt to do all of this. But I get asked the 2013 question. Again and again. At the heart of my response here is the conflict between the political imperative to answer the damn question, and the philosophical dilemma of there being no real answer to the question of what if the world had been different. We don’t truly know, and to pronounce with simple certainty is not enough. All I can do is address the situation as it is, with the gravity it deserves, and hope that my colleagues do the same.

Because just because we do not have an answer to every question, that doesn’t mean we are unsure of our values. Faced with a Prime Minister who appears to find it easier to talk about Easter eggs that to address the toughest humanitarian crisis of our age with sufficient seriousness, we see that we have to take this challenge on.

We will continue live with grave risk and uncertainty. We have to make the hardest of choices. But to constantly step back from the world and shrug "nothing can be done with certainty, therefore do nothing" is a mistake right now in 2017. Whatever our doubts - our own uncertainties - we have to carry on.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South and the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group Friends of Syria. 

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.