Syria exposes hollowness of today's British Labour Party

Comparing Milibands

I thought the British Labour Pary made a mistake when it picked current leader Ed Miliband over his elder brother David in 2010.

To over-simply the debate within the party at the time, support for David was seen as support for the party’s “New Labour” reformation ushered in by Tony Blair. Ed represented a return to Labour’s more socialist, pre-Blair roots.

“Given that the Labour Party spent most of the two decades before Blair getting stomped on by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, it’s curious why Ed’s back-to-our-roots message should resonate, but it does,” I wrote during the party leadership campaign in 2010.

Sure enough, Ed won. David subsequently found the Labour Party an uncomfortable fit and resigned his seat in April to become head of the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based NGO.

The gulf between the Labour Party that is and the Labour Party that might have been has been laid bare by the civil war in Syria, the use of chemical weapons there by forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and what, if anything, the West should do about it. Late last month Labour led voting to defeat a government motion that might have authorized British military action in Syria. The party that only ten years ago sent British soldiers into Iraq to rid the country of a dictator believed to posses chemical weapons now blocks potential air strikes against a dictator who is actively using chemical weapons to gas children within his country’s borders.

Things might have been different had another Miliband prevailed three years ago. In a column published today, David Miliband hints he would back military force against Assad, and suggests that the limited strikes that appear to be in the works are insufficient.

“[N]one of the military options being canvassed – or, in the UK, rejected – promises a decisive shift in the course of the conflict. We are not yet anywhere near the nadir of the humanitarian crisis already consuming five countries at the heart of the Middle East,” he writes in the Financial Times.

“It is clear that, while international engagement is decreasingly popular in the advanced democracies, a multipolar world makes it increasingly necessary.”

The British is enjoying the Milibands’ sibling rivalry. “Brothers at war,” the Daily Mail declares. This is admittedly fun stuff for headline writers, but the divide isn’t really about personalities. It’s about what the Labour Party actually stands for these days.

Dan Hodges, a self-described “Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest,” believes the answer is: not much. This emptiness has been starkly exposed by Labour’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria – something that caused Hodges to quit the party he had belonged to for 27 years.

“He had, he said, sought to oppose a ‘rush to war,’” writes Hodges of Miliband’s performance in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions.

“Fine. We know what Ed Miliband opposes. But what does he actually support? A gentle afternoon promenade to war? A careful tiptoe to war? Or no war at all? Miliband couldn’t say. Because, basically, he doesn’t know.”

Ed surely knows that the majority of the British public is opposed to strikes on Syria. Perhaps his principles are what polls tell him they should be. I’m not sure this is wise. Blair, recall, was re-elected in 2005, two years into a war in Iraq that had become increasingly unpopular in Britain. True, his Conservative opponents were weak. But Blair was at least prepared to defend convictions that were not widely shared. He won three straight majorities. Ed, in 2015, will be hard-pressed to win his first.