Yes, Jeremy Corbyn is a disaster. That’s not a reason to bomb Syria

Like many Labour members, I despair of the direction in which Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party. Back when he was elected, I wondered whether he had a plan for reaching out to the public and taking them with us. In the wake of John McDonnell’s decision to produce a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book at the Despatch Box, I think we have the answer to that question.

Worse, Labour risks building this disaster in for a generation. The kind of hard left organising happening at CLP level looks like a re-run of Militant circa 1981. You have to wonder whether the people who voted for Corbyn over the summer knew what they were letting themselves in for – or even if they really care that Labour is becoming an unelectable NGO, if this week’s Economist is anything to go by:

 “A YouGov poll in The Times on November 24th found that 66% of current party members thought that Mr Corbyn was doing a good job – even more than voted for him in September. And this result came although half of party members also believed he was unlikely ever to become Prime Minister.”

Understandable, then, that centrist Labour MPs are spoiling for a fight, and why they might decide that Syrian airstrikes are the ground on which to have it. Public unease about ISIS is spiking after Paris, and Corbyn has seemed badly out of sync. Labour MPs also sense a chance to set the record straight after Ed Miliband’s disastrous mishandling of a previous vote on the issue in the last Parliament.

Yet for all of Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence in other areas, the plain fact is that on air strikes he is right and the Labour MPs thinking about voting for them are wrong (including my former boss Hilary Benn – who, for the record, is a man whom I think has more integrity than anyone else I’ve met in politics).

First, because air strikes don’t work unless they’re undertaken in conjunction with effective allied forces on the ground, and these don’t exist in Syria. As counter-insurgency writer William Lind puts it,

“The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids.”

Second, because air strikes will bestow a priceless gift to ISIS. Lind again:

“By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.”

And third, because surely we’ve learned by now that “something must be done” is no substitute for a proper war strategy with clear aims. Look how often that impulse has got us into trouble, for heaven’s sake – Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, the disastrous US mission to Somalia that resulted in the Black Hawk down debacle.

To be clear, I’m a passionate believer in the Responsibility to Protect, and the principle of humanitarian intervention. I supported Labour MP Jo Cox in her joint call with former development secretary Andrew Mitchell for a new approach to Syria, and slated shadow development secretary Dianne Abbott for her kneejerk rejection of it.

But we should only undertake humanitarian intervention when it will actually work. This won’t. And my worry is that many Labour MPs are now so enraged with Corbyn that they’ll vote for it anyway.

10 thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s win

1.Whatever you think about Jeremy Corbyn, it is kind of astonishing to see a party leader who goes straight from being elected to participating in a march for refugees’ rights. I’ve grown up used to Labour leaders who pitch themselves at Middle England while assuring us Party members sotto voce that they’re one of us really. It feels weird to have a Labour leader pitching himself at me.

2. I do though wonder about ‘polarisation’ and the risk of issues becoming partisan where they weren’t before. Look at climate change. Once there was a consensus on this; now, it’s arguably the single biggest dividing line between left and right, partly because us lefties made it ‘our’ issue (thanks, Naomi). Is the same thing going to happen on more issues if a leader like Jeremy Corbyn champions them? If so, would that be a good or a bad thing?

3.Which leads me to a bigger underlying question: now that Jeremy Corbyn is our leader, do we have a plan for reaching out to the public and taking them with us? Or is this going to be like all our Facebook walls, where we just talk to ourselves?

4. The right clearly takes the latter view and is giddy with excitement. Janan Ganesh in the FT today: “If David Cameron showed up to parliament in his Bullingdon Club tailcoat to announce the sale of Great Ormond Street children’s hospital to a consortium led by ExxonMobil, his Conservatives would still be competitive against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour at the next election.” It would be nice to defy these expectations.

5.  For the right / New Labour / Blairites, and not a few Brownites, this means they need to (how to put this?) shut the f**k up and acknowledge Corbyn’s overwhelming mandate. They were the first to expect loyalty to the leader when they ran the show. For them to be muttering about ousting Corbyn – as lots of them are privately, and some even publicly – is totally inappropriate.

6. For the left / people who voted for Corbyn, the quid pro quo – one that will be just as hard for them as shutting up will be for the New Labour folk – must be that they have got to let go of this instinct to denounce any questioning of anything Corbyn says / does / has ever done / has ever said as part of a conspiracy to ‘smear’ their guy. Heaven knows Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have never felt shy of living out their view that debate within the Party is healthy…

7. …which is just as well, because we have a lot to debate right now, and it would be nice to be able to do so without being at each other’s throats. Truth is, I feel deeply conflicted about the result. I voted Kendall, Cooper, Burnham because I want Labour to win elections; yet my main feeling about the Blair and Brown eras is one of disappointment. Sure, there were successes – but bloody modest ones, given the scale of the 97 landslide. I want a radical alternative for the 21st century.

8. But I feel uneasy that so much of the Corbyn agenda seems so 20th century: more Socialist Worker than New Economics Foundation. I want us to build new institutions, not just defend the old ones. Above all a lot of it seems deeply statist where I’ve been hoping for something that’s much more about decentralisation and communities. There’s been a lot of good thinking about this in recent years from people like Jon Cruddas and Paul Hilder (see this piece of mine from back in May for links to their stuff). I don’t see much of it represented in Jeremy Corbyn’s platform.

8. On that note, as much as the media try to spin this as New versus Old Labour, there’s actually something much more interesting going on here, as Paul Mason noted a few days ago. Jeremy Corbyn surged to victory by talking about “progressive, left, green, feminist and anti-racist values” – messages that appeal to Party members who are “metropolitan, multi-ethnic, networked and … young”. What none of the leadership candidates really spoke to, on the other hand, was the ‘blue’ Labour agenda of “‘reconnecting’ with the working class base … old Labour voters worried about migration, declining communites etc.”

9. Whereas Tom Watson does align much more with these ‘blue’ Labour values. So for me the question I’m most fascinated by is this: will the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ Labour worldviews and their new standard bearers, Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, be able to work together? Is there some kind of synthesis out there waiting to be found between these two very different takes on what the left should look like? Or is it just a matter of time before the gloves come off? I hope the former; even then, it may not be enough. But let’s go for it.

10. After all, who the hell knows about anything any more. Everyone was wrong about the general election. Everyone was wrong about Corbyn’s chances of winning the Labour leadership. Maybe they’re all wrong about his chances in the next general election too. (As the Daily Mash put it, “A man who just defied expectations to get elected definitely could not win an election, it has been confirmed”.) For sure if there’s another financial crisis then all bets are off: the Conservatives won’t have Labour to blame this time, and with nothing left in the kitty to bail anyone out it could look a lot nastier than the last one.

If foreign policy doesn’t feature in this election a global powerhouse risks losing its voice

In a piece for Real Clear World I argue that

The chances of Britain making it through to May 7 without facing at least one unexpected international event with serious implications for our national interests are slim indeed. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband should be planning to give over at least a day between now and polling to lay out how they intend to shape world events and not just react to them. Even if they remain unpersuaded that the electorate is hungry for answers now, it is difficult to see how they could claim a later mandate for tough decisions if they don’t hint at their direction of travel on ISIS, Russia, China, the Transatlantic relationship, Syria, reform of the European Union, and prospects for this year’s critical summits on sustainable development and climate change.

You can read the whole piece here and see all the other world election coverage they are gathering together here.

Total energy decarbonisation by 2030 AND flat fuel bills? Seriously?

Blimey – Ed Miliband certainly likes to make it hard for himself.

Amid all the coverage this morning of his Labour conference speech yesterday, one small detail seems to have been overlooked: his commitment to total decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2030.

Labour had already committed to including a decarbonisation target in its 2015 manifesto, back in June this year after a cross-party amendment to the Energy Bill in favour of such a measure was defeated by the government – but hadn’t specified the level of the target. This is what Ed Miliband provided yesterday, when he said that

Labour will have a world leading commitment in government to take all of the carbon out of our energy by 2030.

This is a hugely ambitious commitment, and green campaigners will be purring. But you have to wonder – how exactly will this be squared this with the other new policy commitment on energy that he announced yesterday: “the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017”? Because if we really want to achieve a 100% decarbonisation target in just a decade and a half, it will cost more.

It may be that Labour’s simply ignoring the economics of this because the politics are so good. Jonathan Freedland observes this morning that focus group approval of price controls on gas and electricity is “off the charts”, according to a senior Labour figure. The FT’s political team, meanwhile, notes that however much the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and energy companies howl about the risk of lights going out,

Mr Miliband will relish the backlash, which he hopes will highlight his claim to be willing to side with ordinary families against big business and to tilt the economic playing field back in their favour.

“The companies won’t like it because it will cost them money,” Mr Miliband said. “But they have been overcharging people for too long because the market doesn’t work. We need to press the reset button.”

I assume that Labour knows what it’s doing here, not only because Ed Miliband knows the DECC brief back to front but also because Bryony Worthington is a shadow DECC minister and knows more about the energy sector than most of the energy companies themselves do. But I’d feel better seeing some detailed unpacking of the underlying assumptions…

Ten thoughts on the UK Parliament vote on Syria

1. You can totally understand why the British public is where it’s at. Last time they heard about WMD from the JIC, it was the 45 minutes claim. They’ve also drawn pretty much the correct conclusions about the net effect of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. But it strikes me as crazy for Parliament to have ruled out all military action without having either all the facts or all the options in front of it.

3. For once I agree with Dan Hodges – Ed Miliband comes out of this looking terrible.

4. I also agree that this is a tipping point for British foreign policy. Maybe Suez / Iraq order of magnitude. Coupled with where the Tories are taking us on Europe, our approach seems be not to have alliances with anyone anymore.

5. That said, foreign policy people always obsess about influence for its own sake (being ‘in with the cool kids’), rather than on what we’re trying to achieve with it. Show me a concrete win we’ve secured on an issue that matters (climate, development, human security) that we’ve secured by being in the EU or having a ‘special relationship’ with the US.

6. I take the point that way more people have been killed with conventional weapons in this war than chemical weapons. But chemical weapons are different. Same way that landmines are too. Rory Stewart’s post on his blog this morning was good on this.

7. I can totally understand why many internationalist friends of mine are in a state of despair. I feel it too. We really are watching the last gasp of the idea of the Responsibility to Protect for the foreseeable future.

8. (For which we have Tony Blair to thank. Yeah – that guy who wants to bring democracy to the Middle East while applauding the coup in Egypt as a positive development.)

9. But what’s our theory of influence here? “Something must be done” as a response to humanitarian crises has rarely led to good outcomes – from Somalia in 91 onwards. No-one’s willing to consider boots on the ground (and it’s totally unclear that it would be helpful to peace anyway). I can’t see that missile strikes will achieve much beyond making us feel better, and they’re by no means risk-free either. I’m sceptical of all the people on Twitter saying we have to find a political solution (thanks, Einstein). I honestly don’t know what’s the right thing to do.

10. But ruling out all military action wasn’t it.