Comment: Labour should not become pacifists on Syria

By Jonathan Todd

Labour has never been a pacifist party. However, the time has now come for the party to stop hawking its conscience around, as Ernest Bevin told the pacifist George Lansbury following Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. 

Labour needs instead to be absolutely clear about the conditions that must be satisfied for it to support Syrian intervention. These conditions were established in last week’s five point plan.

But in the context of this fast moving situation, the circumstances in which these conditions would hold are ambiguous. Labour cannot duck out of these questions by pointing to ministers having ruled out intervention.

The party has a responsibility to be clear about its position.

The first condition has been satisfied. The UN weapons inspectors have completed their work and will report to the UN security council.

President Obama believes that he can satisfy the second condition by providing compelling evidence that the regime was responsible for the chemical attacks. Does Labour believe him? Citing the UN inspectors doesn't apply here, as they are only tasked with establishing that an attack occurred, not who was responsible for it.

Obama is dismissive of the security council but Labour's third condition requires that it debate and vote. Will Labour, though, be bound by such a vote? Not according to Ed Milband in the Guardian. If so, does this condition simply require that a vote, which the US seems unlikely to sanction, be held?

The fourth condition interacts with this. Does Labour think that a clear legal basis in international law depends upon a security council vote being had? Or won? Or is it independent of whatever the security council may or may not do?

In terms of Labour's final condition, a time limited military intervention with precise and achievable objectives, what about taking out the regime’s airbases? There are only six of them and this would close off supplies to the regime from Iran and Russia, as land routes from the regime’s backers are controlled by anti-Assad forces.

Couldn't Labour justify such strikes as a means of cutting the supply of additional chemicals to the regime?

The five point plan was reasonably clear when it was first proposed but becomes less so as the situation evolves. It should be updated by Labour and made watertight. On this basis, Labour should be prepared to vote to support intervention.

The alternative is that Labour hides behind the failings of David Cameron or declares itself a pacifist party. Both of which would be a betrayal of the party’s internationalist traditions and claim to national leadership.

Jonathan Todd was Labour's parliamentary candidate for Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2010 and a former ministerial adviser. He is a freelance economic consultant and a columnist for Labour Uncut.

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