by Rob Marchant
There are some times when Labour and the Tories divide on party lines, not because merely they are whipped differently – or that they have dark and evil hearts, see Uncuts passim – but simply because they have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world.
What might seem a no-brainer to ordinary folk – the desperate plight of children alone in the world and bearing no responsibility whatsoever for their fate – becomes a point of immovable principle to a pig-headed Tory party caught in a moment of blind, anti-immigration frenzy. And it is sadly difficult to think this is unconnected to the current turbulence within the party over its perennial, navel-gazing obsession, the EU. Along with Labour MPs, a few noble souls defied the Tory whip, but mostly the vote was a shabby affair on the part of the governing party; the parliamentary equivalent of a mumbled excuse.
No, if you need an example of why this country needs a Labour government, it was given to you on Monday night without too much fuss.
The Parliamentary Labour Party, having suffered a rather difficult few months, largely paralysed over how to respond to its politically disastrous new leadership, finally showed what it was made of and supported Lord Alf Dubs’* amendment. An amendment requiring the government to accept the 3,000 homeless, stateless and unaccompanied Syrian children into the country.
Bravo, PLP. Bravo. It was a good thing you did on Monday night, even if it ended in honourable defeat. We should, however, just remember one, painfully ironic thing.
A similar night in Parliament, 29 August 2013, when a vote for intervention in Syria – a fairly uncontroversial no-fly zone – was scuppered by then party leader Ed Miliband, who waffled contentedly about stopping the “rush to war” and high-fived in Pyrrhic triumph as he exited the chamber. A vote the Economist rightly described as “the vote of shame”.
Long-time party members resigned in disgust. It was the nadir of Miliband’s already-undistinguished leadership and it is worth quoting the Economist’s cutting conclusion: “Britain’s failure to stand by its allies and stand up to tyranny has diminished it in the eyes of the world”. Quite.
It has now failed again, this time on a purely humanitarian level, to help even a small number of the weakest and most defenceless Syrians.
But it did not end there. That vote, in turn – in reality probably the only important political intervention that Miliband made as leader outside his own party – had “ripple effects”. In short, it helped stymie Barack Obama’s own attempts to get intervention through Congress (if you doubt this, you should read this piece).
As a result of the failure of the West to intervene as it promised it would in the event of chemical weapons use, Bashar Assad continued to slaughter his own people with impunity, including undisputed use on civilians of the chemical weapons of sarin and chlorine. The death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands, prompting the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Islamic State, with its unerring instinct for being able to smell trouble and feed off the disaffection of others, piled into Syria’s power vacuum to compound its misery and further complicate the case for intervention.
There have been many other factors, of course, in the story of Syria’s tragedy. It was not just us. And there are mitigating factors for Labour too: the PLP roll call now is not the same as it was in 2013; some MPs have retired and some new ones have arrived. There is also a short but honourable list of MPs who rebelled against Miliband’s whip in the 2013 vote and took the consequences.
But we, Labour, really did not help. Those MPs who walked through the Noes lobby that night might just recognise – as some, in moments of brutal self-reflection surely do – that a part of the reason that those children were knocking on Britain’s door in the first place was the action of the PLP on that day.
Learning point: perhaps we might think about internationalism, and the law of unintended consequences, the next time a desperate country cries out for help.
A stitch, as they say, in time.
* We will for the moment gloss over Dubs’ unfortunate history as a member of the politically toxic Palestine Solidarity Campaign and supporter of hate-preachers such as Raed Salah.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left