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.