A Thinking Labour Party
Parliament has voted in favour of David Cameron’s motion that Britain bombs ISIL positions in Syria. Syria is a sovereign state and therefore the UK would be breaking international law by carrying out bombing in Syria without the permission of the Syrian government. However the UN charter does allow member states to take action, like bombing, in the territory of other member states if it is necessary for their own protection. It is for this reason that Cameron’s motion explicitly ‘notes the clear legal basis to defend the UK and our allies in accordance with the UN Charter’. The motion effectively claims that the bombing in Syria is necessary to defend the UK and is therefore legal in international law. It’s a false argument. ISIL represents no existential threat to the UK even if they successfully execute attacks like the Paris shootings. Also it’s probable that the bombing will increase the likelihood of ISIL targeting the UK.
In the past Parliament might well have nodded through Cameron’s motion. But Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s new leader, is making a difference. He insisted that MPs think far more deeply about what their votes are expected to achieve than they ever had to in the Blair years. Corbyn is forcing the Labour party to become an opposition of substance and not just of form. And many Labour MPs are finding it very difficult. It is so much easier to just mouth platitudes.
Corbyn demanded of the British Parliament that they do something much more complicated than drop a few bombs. He demanded that they help bring about a ‘comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian war’ and he has called for ‘an acceleration of the peace talks in Vienna, involving all the main regional and international powers, with the aim of negotiating a broad-based government in Syria that has the support of the majority of its people. In the context of such a settlement, internationally backed regional forces could help to take back territory from ISIL. But its lasting defeat in Syria can only be secured by Syrians themselves’ (Guardian December 2nd). A further strong point made by Corbyn (and by people like John Baron, Conservative Backbencher) is the utter failure over the past eighteen months to cut off money, men and arms to ISIS, which had it been done would have had more impact on ISIS than all the bombing.
Corbyn was unable to convince the shadow cabinet that there should be a Labour whip on the vote on Cameron’s motion. George Galloway described that failure as a ‘tactical and moral failure’. It wasn’t. Corbyn has to work with the material he has to hand in the form of elected Labour MPs. He reluctantly made the right decision in not forcing the whip and instead persisted in arguing his case coherently. His approach has worked and he has likely won over some of the doubters.
Cameron has justified UK bombing of Syria on the pretence that it is necessary to defend Britain and is therefore legal in international law. Cameron knows this is not the case so the question must be asked what his real reasons are. There are probably several.
Cameron feels that Britain is being increasingly side-lined from the resolution of the Syrian problem. He wants Britain to bomb Syria to show that Britain is still an important power in the world, worthy of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a status that had been threatened by Parliament’s refusal to endorse the bombing of Assad in August 2013.
But Cameron’s involvement in Libya should make him a very dubious candidate for involvement in Syria. In Libya, via a dishonest interpretation of the UN Security Council Resolution which allowed the creation of ‘No Fly’ zones, Cameron bombed the Gaddafi army and effected regime change thus creating the non-functioning state that Libya is today. There is little doubt that Cameron would like to effect a similar regime change in Syria today. His 2013 motion rejected by the British Parliament was designed to do just that. His motion on bombing ISIL has also that intention as evidenced by Michael Fallon’s answers to a House of Commons select committee on 1st December where he said that ISIL was degrading the opposition to Bashar Al-Assad and that one purpose of the UK bombing of ISIL is to strengthen the military forces opposing the Assad government. This is a recipe for prolonging the civil war without changing the outcome.
In contrast Corbyn is advocating, as stated above, ‘an acceleration of the peace talks in Vienna, involving all the main regional and international powers, with the aim of negotiating a broad-based government in Syria that has the support of the majority of its people’. The emphasis on the ‘regional’ powers is important. Clearly this involves the government of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Opposition Committee, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey working out a political solution together with oversight from Russia and America. Corbyn will likely view many of these participants with distaste. But he wants them to set about resolving their differences politically unlike Cameron who is prepared endure endless chaos and disruption of peoples’ lives rather than allow Bashar al-Assad remain in power even if only temporarily.
One of Corbyn’s severest critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party has been Mary Creagh MP. The nature of a thinking Labour party is that there will be disagreements and arguments. Mary Creagh’s argument will need to be analysed and answered. A weakness in her position is that she cannot see a future Syria with any role for Assad and the Ba’ath party. She is partly answered when Corbyn states that he wants a ‘broad-based government… that has the support of the majority of its people’. The implication is clearly that what existed pre 2011 will not be acceptable in 2015. But for Corbyn the issue is to be resolved in the Vienna talks primarily by the Syrian representatives but also with the regional and international powers contributing. Surely better that a compromise for a functioning Syrian state is hammered out around a table in Vienna than that another 50,000 die in Syria.
Corbyn is forcing the Labour party to think hard about all these very complicated issues. In a similar way he has challenged the Tory case on austerity which the previous shadow cabinet was too easily prepared to concede. There was much talk in the media about Britain no longer having an effective opposition after Corbyn’s leadership victory. The opposite has turned out to be the case. Corbyn is endeavouring to create a Labour party that is required to think and which may therefore become a truly effective official opposition.