Background Explainer: The Labour Case for Intervention

For Labour’s 231 MPs, this is the weekend of a decision that can only be made in sorrow.

At the end of last week, Labour MPs were sent back to their constituencies to make the hardest decision that any MP will ever make; the decision whether or not to use military force.

In 2015 that choice is made over Islamic State (IS) the terrorist proto-state located across the Syria-Iraq border, and responsible both for genocide in land directly controlled by IS, and for a string of international atrocities including the near-simultaneous attacks across Paris which so recently took the lives of 130 people.

The Conservative government supports intervention, in line with the UK’s international responsibilities. A vote will be called, this week, to decide whether we do so. The question is how close that vote will be.

At the time of writing (before the by-election in Oldham West) the Conservatives hold 330 of 649 seats with representation in place. There will be Conservative rebels against the whip, and no other party has yet promised support — although the DUP (8 votes) have suggested they may do so.

With organised, determined opposition of the opposition parties in place, the vote could be lost, and the mandate for the case made by the government — including the extension of air strikes from Iraq to Syria withheld.

That organised opposition is not in place.

The numbers mean that the decision on whether the UK takes on Islamic State will be made by Labour supporters of intervention, to whom a ‘free vote’ (a vote in which MPs are not constrained by a party whip, a mechanism commonly used for ‘matters of conscience’ such as capital punishment or abortion) may be offered.

If a free vote in held, those Labour MPs will be able to vote as they believe appropriate. If a free vote is not held, they may be cast as rebels against a Labour position which — at least in formal fashion — has yet to be decided.

The number of Labour supporters for the government’s position is significant for several reasons, not least the question of legitimacy. Military action should not be party political. The historical view is that there are some things too important to be used on the next set of election leaflets, and matters touching on our security, and in which our people may serve, are prime amongst them.

In 2013 the Conservative-led coalition government worked hard to secure cross-party support for air-strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad for this reason, and were defeated. That defeat had significant implications. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he will not return to parliament and seek a mandate for action against IS now unless it is clear that a parliamentary majority can be secured.

The Labour leader is clear that he does not support the case for intervention and has appealed directly to Labour’s now 370,000 members.

As MPs reflect, they are subject to one of the most organised public lobbying campaigns of recent years — a campaign that appears to be being led from within the Labour Party itself.

For those who have to choose, the vote will be sad, it will be hard, and it will be painful. This is not straight-forward, and it is not easy. The right of Labour MPs to make their choice, and to vote either for or against intervention should be respected.

So why write about it now?

People should know how very hard the decision facing Labour MPs is. The choice is bigger even than Islamic State, but a wider statement of the Labour Party sees our security, responsibilities and Britain’s place in the world. MPs live with their decisions in a way that few of us have to.

The project on which I am working today is an attempt to answer as many of the common questions on Syria and on intervention as is possible in a few short hours. It is an attempt to explain some of those issues, the relevant international law, military situation on the ground, humanitarian implications and some of the other thousand points constraining the decision that individual MPs will make, and it is something much simpler. It is an attempt to show how complicated that choice is.

What’s the project then?

Over the last few months everyone working on Syria policy has been sent, and have fielded thousands of individual questions. We have been delighted to do so, and touched by the very public concern for Syria, and for Syria’s refugees. I am one of those people, and occasionally, I’ve written on specific points such as why Libya and Syria are very different interventions.

As the vote draws closer, all of those questions have been distilled into whether Labour should or should not support intervention. But that question contains the thousand questions and a thousand more. For that reason, and at almost the last possible moment to do so, it was suggested to me by one of the quite genuinely undecided Labour MPs that I try and answer as many of the key points in one single document as can realistically be done in twenty-four hours. I write from the perspective of someone who supports intervention (see below). The same suggestion has been put to writers and analysts who take a different perspective. I hope they take it up.

To supplement the questions that I have received and previously half-answered, I have today also put out a call on social media. Tweet a question on Syria to @KateVotesLabour before midnight tonight and I’ll make sure that it is integrated. It may only be by addressing the underlying point, but it will be there.

The ground rules

I’ve given myself around twelve hours to address the key arguments on Syria, conflict and intervention. There will be a cost. Structuring material will be tough, grammar is going to slide, and referencing will be impossible. All I can say is that this will be draft one, I’ll add all of the references tomorrow, and in the meantime, will restrict myself to material that I have used, and qualified, previously.

The second disclaimer is that many of these points are live and discretionary debates under international law. Is IS approaching statehood? Does it have to be? Are responsibilities under international law duties or negotiations? (They are negotiations — but you may disagree with me and the countries involved on the conclusions reached).

Until I can issue a revised draft, I’d absolutely encourage people to take on the arguments, the facts and the conclusions. Go for it. Send over new sources, tell me if something I’ve used has been replaced by new or better information and where you know better, tear it apart. In return I will publish every substantive argument made, add a list of contributors, and alter and adjust where information and conclusions could be improved. With your help, this will be a living document, and all the stronger for it.

In return, all I ask is a little understanding on grammar, and patience until we’ve argued out the discretionary points.

So who are you?

Someone normally unpersuaded by ‘About the author’ sections, but in this case, acknowledges the relevance.

Who am I?

I am a small and demonstrably non-expert writer on Labour and Syria policy from the Midlands, and I take full responsibility for everything that I publish. Any errors (before or after attribution) are entirely my own. I am neither an international lawyer nor an academic, and I can’t read Arabic. The sources that I use are as accessible to you as they are to me.

When writing about Syria, I am fortunate to have the help and support of people within the Syrian diaspora community, one or two genuinely expert voices, journalists who stayed in Syria long after I left, and informal contacts from the MoD and FCO. I’ll be ringing most of them this evening. My gratitude and apologies for any information or points that I retrospectively am unable to attribute.

My political affiliations are Labour and I was a candidate in the 2015 election. Prior to returning to the UK for that purpose, I spent many years working in and around Damascus, as well as across the Middle East. My knowledge of Syrian politics and geography was acquired during that time. As a research manager originally trained by UNDP, I regularly conducted field research –street by street social research — across Syria. It is a country that I love, and stand outside. I have no connection to any group or community within Syria, and no interest that should be declared, except…

Lastly, what perspective do you write from?

…this one.

I am on record as a supporter of intervention in Syria. As you read, you should keep in mind that for me, the case is made. If I had a vote in parliament (and it is very unlikely I will ever have a vote in parliament on anything) I would use it to support the case set out this week, including the extension of air strikes from Iraq to Syria.

That support may influence my selection of material when answering questions. You have a right to know it.

And you should know that my choice — like yours — was made on balance, and in struggle of spirit. There are no right answers.

As it is for us, so too will it be for every one of Labour’s 231 MPs. This is not a choice to be envied, it is not a choice that should ever be held against an individual MP.

There should be no lists, no challenges, no retrospective battles.

We started this with the understanding that some things are too big for simple politics. The vote on Syria is one of them.

Once the votes are cast, we should let our people go home.

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