On Friday night, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn emailed me (and other grassroots members of the Party) asking what I think Britain should do about the civil war in Syria, our national security, the threat of ISIS and, specifically, “Should Parliament vote to authorise the bombing of Syria?” He wanted to know my thoughts by the end of the weekend.
I have spent quite some time thinking about whether and how I should reply to this email. This evening, I submitted the following via the open, online questionnaire on the Labour Party website. Given the level of concerted Twitterstorms and other – some of it, quite nasty – online activity under the #DontBombSyria banner, I decided that I must respond and, in the interest of proper and reasoned debate, I felt I should also publish this response.
I would like to preface this by saying, that I absolutely respect all other views on this matter and am not publishing this to incite or provoke. (So, in the words of YouTube star Miranda Sings, “Haters, back off!” Please.)
Dear Mr Corbyn
You have sent an email to myself and other members of the Labour Party asking us to answer the question: “Should Parliament vote to authorise the bombing of Syria?”
To answer this directly: I don’t know.
I have tried to read as much as I can on this issue and have spoken to friends who are experts on international relations and the Middle East. The situation in Syria is clearly extremely complicated – despite the framing above as a reductive yes/no question. I don’t believe there is a ‘right’ answer; at best, only ever a least worst option.
From my limited understanding, I believe that the UK’s involvement in military intervention, in league with our international allies, may well be justified at some point; if not now, in the near future, when less certain elements of the Government’s comprehensive strategy (not ‘just bombing’) have been developed more fully and/or there have been new ISIL-backed terrorist atrocities that further threaten the UK’s national security.
While I respect pacifists, and agree that, if possible, war should be avoided; I believe pacifism at any cost brings its own serious security risks. The ability to call on military force must be a key tool in crafting legitimate and effective internatit policy, along with diplomacy, foreign aid, legal sanction through the UN and ‘hearts and minds’ propaganda.
As American lawyer and statesman Elihu Root (1845-1937) once said, the purpose of a country’s armed services is “not to promote war, but to preserve peace” – and that sometimes requires action rather than inaction…
With all that said, my questions for you, Mr Corbyn, are these:
- Why on earth ask me in the first place? (Seriously, do you really think I, or others on your grassroots members email list, are capable of providing a truly informed answer to this online question?)
- More directly, Mr Corbyn: why this charade of so-called “democracy” on the part of your leadership?
It has becoming increasingly clear that, no matter what developments or clarifications, you will never sanction military intervention in this conflict (if, indeed, in any conflict) – and have never been willing to do so. I was at the Labour conference just two months ago when the emergency motion on the matter was passed, setting four conditions for supporting military action:
- authorisation from the United Nations
- a comprehensive plan for humanitarian assistance
- assurances that the bombing is directed exclusively at military targets associated with ISIL
- that any military action is subordinated to international diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria
From my understanding, these conditions have been met – and yet, rather than accept this democratic vote of Labour Party conference delegates, and/or debating and coming to a collective, united position with your Shadow Cabinet, in the past few days, you and your advisers:
- Drew up your position opposing military intervention before the Prime Minister even presented his case to the House of Commons
- Sent a letter to all of your MPs on your position before any discussion with your Shadow Cabinet
- Have authorised Stop the War, Momentum and your substantial JeremyCorbyn4PM social channels, in your name, to bombard (and, in my view, cyber-bully) their MPs with template-based #DontBombSyria letters and tweets
- Supported protest marches to exert further pressure
- and spammed Labour Party members with this consultation email in order to gather responses to support your position that may, once again, be used to ‘convince’ your Parliamentary colleagues
This is not democracy by any definition that I recognise; but rather an attempt to crudely rig ‘debate’ until you get an answer you want.
Most worryingly, you are attempting to skew this critical debate by asking for an answer to an overly simplified question from people who – no matter how well-meaning or well read we masses are – are not in any way equipped to give a meaningful one. Every individual may have an opinion, but most members of the public are not experts on the situation and we are not privy to the level of briefing granted to members of Parliament.
It is the job of MPs to scrutinise policy and to make as informed a decision as possible in what they believe to be the best interests of the people they represent – the people they represent being not just members of the Labour Party, but all of their constituents.
You have made your MPs’ jobs so much more difficult by orchestrating this weekend’s email bombardment (Stop the War boasts over 90,000 emails were dumped on MPs – not, by and large, thoughtful, individual pleas but pre-filled, anonymous templates) and Twitterstorms. As you know, MPs do not have budgets for staff to deal with this level of digital deluge. This puts further strain on the Party’s already seriously stretched resources. And, at a most critical time, when they should be seriously considering and deciding how they will vote: according to the evidence before them, expert advice and their conscience, not as a kneejerk reaction to undue pressure from either side.
[By the way, I urge anyone who believes mass online mobilisation of this ilk to be a wise means of engaging with MPs to affect real change: read Esther Foreman’s recent research report for the Social Change Agency, “Shouting Down the House”, on how such aggressive digital campaigning drowns out democracy and serious policy-making.]
I also do not believe that creating a need for Labour staff to wade through tens of thousands of emails – in terms of this Syrian ‘consultation’ or your weekly solicitation of items to pose at Prime Minister’s Questions – is a good use of limited party resources or my annual membership fees.
As your representatives have exhorted, I will also send a copy of this to my Labour MP, Neil Coyle for Bermondsey and Old Southwark. But rather than do as you suggest and pressure Neil to vote the way you are attempting to dictate, I urge Neil to vote as he feels is appropriate; he will continue to have my support whichever way that is.