Read my Guardian article (2nd September) on why Ed Miliband made the right decision not to support an ill-judged and rushed decision to use military force in Syria
David Cameron has a streak of petty, bullying arrogance which often reveals itself at Prime Ministers’ Questions – very un-Prime Ministerial. Now his henchmen have been trying to spin his humiliating defeat by Parliament into an unedifying character assassination of Ed Miliband.
It wasn’t Miliband who attempted to grandstand by bouncing Parliament prematurely into attacking Syria.
The Labour Leader hasn’t been responsible for perhaps the most monumentally misjudged British foreign policy in recent times.
Cameron began two years ago demanding regime change – which didn’t work. Then he resourced the rebel forces – which failed too. Then he tried to send arms to the rebels – until cross-party opposition in Parliament blocked that: perhaps he forgot the series of protests by MPs culminating in the vote opposing his policy by 114 to 1 on 11 July on a backbench motion moved by Tories?
When first phoned last week by the PM and informed of his intentions to recall Parliament at short notice, Ed Miliband initially offered to cooperate – as was his duty. The hideous chemical weapons attack revolted everyone.
But he was not prepared to support an ill-judged and rushed decision to use military force: before the UN weapons inspectors had reported, before the UN Security Council had even debated and voted on the basis of the evidence presented, and before the wider impact of military action on the region had been properly weighed up. Ed has been consistent ever since he was elected Labour leader three years ago: these are the lessons of Iraq. We have to learn them.
Instead Cameron insisted Parliament vote ahead of the evidence– and Parliament refused to be bounced. No amount of poisonous Tory briefing can escape that truth.
Yes, on Wednesday backbench and frontbench Labour MPs made it clear they were unwilling to go along with the PM. As did many Tories too – though Number 10 ignored them, in a way the Labour Leader did not of his Party.
But the real problem is that Cameron on Thursday gave absolutely no sense of where this was all going to lead to. What would happen after a military strike – ‘surgical’ or not? What about collateral civilian casualties, retaliatory attacks, escalatory consequences?
Although they do indeed cross a red line in warfare, chemical weapons actually account for just 1 per cent of all the terrible causalities in Syria. What would Parliament be asked to do next?
If Cameron had all along been dovish over Syria and come to MPs saying: ‘we simply must stop chemical attacks’, maybe he might have achieved a different result. But he has been repeatedly and publicly straining at the leash of British military intervention for over a year now. The chemical attack simply seemed like an excuse to do what he had long wanted.
The fundamental flaw in the position of the government, the US and its allies, is to see Syria as a battle between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people.
It’s a civil war: a quagmire involving Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, the US versus Russia, with Al Qaida fighters increasingly prominent amongst the rebel forces.
Assad has the backing of 40 per cent of the population who may fear his ruthless dictatorship, but fear much more becoming victims of genocide or Sunni extremism.
Surely if western military strikes toppled Assad without a settlement in place, there could be even greater chaos and carnage in a powder keg of a region?
There can be no military victory by either side. The alternative is to drop a failed British policy and promote a negotiated settlement between Assad and his enemies. However impossible that looks today, it’s the only way to solve this bloody and increasingly dangerous war.
If Cameron stopped his poisonous spin and changed course he would find Miliband and MPs of all Parties willing partners.
My article in the Sunday Telegraph today (1st September) argues that British policy to Syria has been a ‘monumental failure’ and that there must be a change. Negotiating not being sucked into a civil war must be the answer.
Read my Guardian interview (28th August) where I argue that military action would be very dangerous and could light a powder keg.
Three years ago few gave Labour much chance of winning the 2015 general election. Crushed in 2010 and widely if unfairly blamed for the economic crisis, history also told us that no party had ever come back from such a position to win a majority in just one term. These were the unpromising circumstances in which Ed Miliband became leader.
Although we had been in power for 13 years, Ed was not afraid of criticising our record. He had been a cabinet minister, as we had been, and like us he was proud of the great bulk of our achievements. But he was also clear that many of the problems facing Britain required fundamentally different approaches and new solutions. At the heart of his argument was the idea that the British economic model which had evolved over nearly 30 years was not capable of enabling this country to pay its way, or of offering jobs which would let our citizens enjoy a good, secure standard of living.
The banking crisis was global, and Labour had responded well, showing global leadership and decisive action at home. But it also revealed an economy that was too dependent on the riskier parts of the financial services industry and with too little depth everywhere else. Ed’s willingness to confront these uncomfortable truths helped firm up our core vote, win back some of those who left us in 2005 and 2010, and establish a lead over the Tories. His attempts to define the challenges struck a chord with the public.
He was the first to point out that our economy failed the “squeezed middle” as well as the poorest. He knew that low incomes could not be alleviated by redistributive taxation alone. He was brave enough to confront media power and to lead criticism of the banks.
His understanding that these structural problems reflected wider dysfunctions and injustices about economic and social power led him to launch the debate about “responsible capitalism”. There was initially much media sniping, but then his critics had to concede that he was right: the “rules of the game” had to be changed and financial regulation radically improved, both to discourage destructive corporate behaviour and encourage companies committed to long-term investment, innovation and good employment practice. This was never a “leftwing” agenda in an “old Labour” sense. It was clear to a broad spectrum of opinion that both the current government’s and New Labour’s over-reliance on free market liberalism and underplaying the role of the state in modern economies lay behind Britain’s economic weakness.
At the heart of Ed’s One Nation vision was his willingness to take a different direction on economic policy. It gave us credible answers to the problems facing the squeezed middle and to the question of where decent jobs would come from. It’s no coincidence that when these messages were at their sharpest and most consistent, Labour’s lead was strongest. It’s in the past few months, when we’ve heard less of this fundamental approach to the economy, that Labour’s lead has weakened.
On the one hand, the commonsense acceptance that incoming Labour ministers will have to work to the first-year budgets they inherit has been wrongly seen as wholesale acceptance of Osborne’s disastrous economic strategy. On the other, criticism of poor corporate behaviour has been muted, and areas such as tax abuse have ceded to simplistic coalition sloganeering.
All the signs point to Ed Miliband being the next prime minister – and this because of, not despite, his leadership. But the modest Tory revival is a healthy warning to stick to his core message. Detailed policy can wait, but on the big issues it is not better to have less definition rather than more.
The public don’t like any politicians much. They have little time for parties who just want to rubbish the other lot. For Labour, a party that was in power so recently and for so long, an acrimonious debate about whose record is worse is unlikely to produce a decisive winner.
The most valuable members of the shadow cabinet have been those who have set out radical long-term visions for their area of responsibility, such as Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall on the need to integrate a National Care Service into the NHS. Labour has been at its strongest when we have risen above the party political dogfight to speak the truth about what needs to be done.
There’s nothing to worry about in our current position so long as the entire Labour leadership team swiftly rediscovers the ability to do the same.