Monday, November 30, 2015 

Let them have their war. This time they must answer for it.

If you thought Labour's machinations over Syria couldn't get any more absurd, then spare a thought for Syria Solidarity UK.  Despite the name, the group seems to exist solely for the purposes of trolling the Stop the War coalition.  In response to Saturday's various marches and actions by the StWC, SSUK put out a statement making clear its opposition both to their protests and the proposed government action, as the only legitimate option in their eyes and also by extension the ordinary Syrians they clearly represent would be "limited military action" to create no bombing zones.  They say the only way to oppose imperialism in Syria would be to protest outside the Russian embassy, and emphasise how Assad's forces are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.

As with all the dullards on Saturday who tweeted pictures of the Russian embassy demanding to know why there weren't any protesters outside, the obvious response is if you're so pissed off about it, why don't all you pro-war anti-Assad anti-IS people band together, get organised and rally there yourselves?  Indeed, one would think the point of a group like SSUK would be to do just that, only they seem more concerned with pointing out just how wrong the StWC is than taking action.  Then again, when you look at the full drill down of which groups are meant to have killed civilians in Syria and see that according to the SSUK source the Kurds have killed more civilians overall than the al-Nusra Front has, a claim so bonkers that you can but marvel at the chutzpah of those pushing such nonsense, taking anything they say seriously would be a mistake.

Sadly, we must return to Labour and the still divided shadow cabinet.  Supposedly over the weekend calm minds and rational thinking were meant to prevail, and a common policy would be duly thrashed out.  And it's true, a shared approach has been decided upon: the party has agreed to disagree.

So much in the way of bullshit has been spouted over the last week and continues to be now that trying to separate the reality from the bluster is all but impossible.  Either way, it seems the decision to ask the membership what they thought in a mass email on Friday night was not discussed at the shadow cabinet meeting, and if there's one thing that's completely unacceptable in this day and age, it's asking a party's membership what it thinks about anything other than the leadership.  We all know why: members of political parties are complete weirdos, in that they probably watch the news and have an interest in politics, whereas the vast majority of the public do not.  Members of political parties tend to get hung up on things like gay marriage, Europe or wars, topics that could not be more alien to Mr and Mrs Average, who are completely average in every way.  Mr and Mrs Average are aspirational, dislike hateful people unless they hate the people they hate, and usually can be relied upon to support war, as long as it's over by Christmas.  If anyone should be asked what they think, it should be them, not the people who pay their monthly dues and help to keep parties afloat.

This went down badly with some of those shadow cabinet ministers who we're told believe David Cameron's case for war to be compelling.  With the exception of John Woodcock, whose justification pretty much runs to the French president has asked us to join in with the bombing and so we must despite all of these reasons for caution, few Labour MPs who are minded to vote with Cameron have explained just what it is they've found so compelling.  Far more have spoken of how they aren't convinced, including opponents of Corbyn.  Chris Bryant, who trained to be a vicar and decided to join the only other organisation more split than the CoE went through all manner of moral contortions on the Daily Politics, asking himself if he would have failed in his duty if there were an ISIS attack that killed one of his constituents at home or abroad and he had voted against Cameron's plan.  Surely such considerations also have to be turned on their head: what if he voted for the plan and there was an attack regardless?  Would it be any more or less of a comfort then?  Would he consider if his vote had made that constituent less safe, or would that be as some Labour MPs have argued to take away responsibility from those wholly responsible?

Corbyn we're equally told was determined not to allow a free vote, a position ascribed as much to Seumas Milne as Jez, the former Graun comment editor fast becoming as much of a bogeyman figure to the right of the party as Alastair Campbell did to the right-wing press and Peter Mandelson was to the left.  That the end result then was not merely a decision to grant a free vote, but also the party failed to agree on a position other than the one decided upon at conference, which was pretty much designed to make it impossible for the party to support military action only for Paris to happen does then strike as strange.  Does this show Corbyn is far weaker than he seems, that he doesn't after all say one thing in public and do another in private?  Could he not chance the possibility that if multiple shadow ministers resigned the much rumoured and talked about coup would be set in motion?  Did him simply, gasp, compromise despite everything, and let it lie on the likes of Hilary Benn that the party doesn't have any sort of policy at all?  Is this merely Corbyn deciding to let this one go, knowing that the hordes of Momentum will set off after those who vote with Cameron?

Rafael Behr, another of those journalists who post-Miliband seems to have gone off the deep end, reckons the party will despite everything carry on muddling through.  To him the "cold war" will go on rather than become open battle.  This ignores that by any yardstick, the number of Labour MPs who stood up during Cameron's statement on the Paris attacks two weeks ago and essentially agreed with the prime minister that their leader is a terrorist loving coward was about as open a declaration of war as it gets.  No leader can stay in place long when there is such a breakdown of discipline, when mutiny is in effect only a heartbeat away.  Corbyn can perhaps spin his failure to impose his will on the shadow cabinet as being part of his "new politics", but we all know full well that he instinctively wanted the party to oppose the widening of our role against Islamic State.  It's all the more galling that his instincts are the right ones, and that none of those opposing his stand have come near to explaining which part of his letter to MPs outlining his reasoning is incorrect.  The 5 tests of Dan Jarvis have been forgotten about exceedingly quickly.

Nevertheless, in the end Corbyn's decision to back down was the right one.  It is and does look awful that Labour doesn't have a policy, that it seems as though Corbyn and his shadow foreign secretary will stand at the dispatch box and disagree with each other, but it wasn't worth risking the alternatives, whether it was widespread resignations or worse.  The proposed action is so weak, so minor, that if they're this set on getting their war on, then let them.

If this latest war goes wrong though, as it's almost guaranteed to as there are no ground forces to take Raqqa other than the ones opposed by its very people, then this time those responsible have to be held accountable.  Yes, the principal blame should be put on a government that has a majority, a fact that the media seems to want to forget in its rush to, amazingly, pin responsibility on a hopeless opposition, but those who do vote with Cameron should have to justify themselves also.  When the action and case are so weak, when the facts are once again being fixed around the policy, when the recent past points towards the potential for making things worse, not better, if we don't at this point demand that those who so willingly vote for involvement in foreign conflicts answer for themselves, in the words of Cameron back in 2013 and again last week, then when?

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Thursday, November 26, 2015 

Everything repeats. Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

The problem when it comes to writing about the government's case for war against Islamic State in Syria is it's difficult to get properly angry about or diametrically oppose something that will in truth, be so marginal if the Commons votes for it.  All the government is asking for when it comes down to it is to be able to chuck a few more bombs into a country that is already awash with weapons, explosives, death, hunger, the whole four horsemen bit.  Technically, that ought to make it absolutely enraging; why on earth make a bad situation potentially even worse?

Except support it or not, Syria will get worse before, or rather if it gets better.  From as soon as the rebellion turned almost fully Islamist/jihadist, our plan has been for the two sides to fight down to the very last Syrian.  We obviously didn't imagine it would get so bad that hundreds of thousands of Syrians would come to the realisation there was nothing left for them in the Middle East at all and so make the perilous journey to Europe, but in actuality it hasn't altered our thinking all that much.

Indeed, if we're to believe David Cameron's response to the Foreign Affairs committee report (which its chair, Crispin Blunt, has pretty much disowned in any case) then we are still clinging to the especially fetching fantasy that "moderates" will eventually win the day.  Yep, according to Dave and the security services, there are around 70,000 moderates on the ground who we can work with, and they'll be the ones taking back territory from Islamic State in conjunction with our main allies, the Kurds/Syrian Defence Forces.

All but needless to say, there are a few fairly major flaws in this argument.  First, that there really are 70,000 moderates among the rebels.  Cameron has provided absolutely no breakdown of who these revolutionaries are, nor of where they are currently based.  The response talks airily of how moderate rebels have defended territory north of Aleppo, and also how in southern Syria moderates have kept out both IS and the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra Front.  Raqqa, Islamic State's capital of its self-declared caliphate, is over 200km from Aleppo itself, just to begin with.  No one seems to have any real idea of where this 70,000 figure comes from, but the best guess is it's probably the near entirety of the non al-Nusra rebels, as the FCO has been talking about previously.  It likely includes groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whom with the very best gloss put on them are nationalist Islamists who want an Islamic state rather than democracy.  They routinely in any case ally with the outright jihadists; Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Army of Conquest, aka Jaish al-Fatah, which until very recently included al-Nusra (if they truly have exited the coalition, that is).

This strategy, such as it is, is predicated on two things that have not happened yet.  That the Vienna talks will succeed in negotiating a ceasefire between Assad and these "moderate" rebels; and that these rebels will then turn their attention entirely to IS.  Even if Vienna does somehow lead to a ceasefire, why on earth would these moderates leave territory they've captured undefended to go and fight a group they share far more with than they do Assad?  The answer is they won't, and the best that can be hoped for is that ceasefire, which will instead allow Assad's forces to turn their guns wholly on IS.

For this is the strategy, again such as it is, that lies beneath the rhetoric.  Cameron gave the game away when asked by Tim Farron about safe zones.  Safe zones you have to enforce, he replied, and that could lead to ground forces becoming involved.  If we had fundamental trust in these 70,000 moderates, a fraction of them could clearly do the job, and we could probably come to a deal with the Russians as to where these safe zones would be.  Fact is that we don't trust them as far as we can throw them, so the idea's a non-starter.  Not that we trust the Syrian Arab Army either, but they can be relied upon to follow orders.

The truth is for all the clowning, hyperbole and bluster against the Russians, the attack on the Metrojet plane and then Paris has concentrated minds.  We can't be seen to be helping Assad, but now the Russians have intervened they can do that for us.  The fighting currently going on in the west of Syria seems to be the SAA trying its best to carve out as much territory as it can for itself, helped by Russian airstrikes before the Vienna talks somehow manage to reach the goal of a ceasefire.  The Russians will then keep overwatch to make sure the rebels don't try and take back territory the SAA might have vacated in the west to concentrate on IS in the east.  

Whether this eventually leads to the partitioning of Syria or the creation of autonomous zones, with a Sunni enclave in the west, an Alawite/Druze/Christian enclave including Damascus and extending to Raqqa, with a Kurdish enclave in the north or not remains to be seen.  Alternatively, the Kurds could probably take Raqqa themselves if given sufficient backing and time, but they've made it pretty clear that whatever territory they take they're keeping, and why shouldn't they?  The Turks are already pissed off enough as it is with their advances, so that seems off the table.

In short, the only strategy we have is not the one being presented by the government, and the one we do have is reliant on an almost unimaginable ceasefire between two sides prepared to fight each other to the death.

The rest of Cameron's case isn't much stronger.  The difference our military can make in Syria amounts to the Brimstone missile, a camera that can see the goosebumps on a terrorist's neck from 150 miles away, and that the Americans and French think we'll be helpful.  The French defence minister has set out his case for why they desperately need us by their side, and it's all reasonable enough until you get to the part about how we achieved so much together protecting innocent civilians in Libya and you realise it's time to stop reading.  The Brimstone missile is apparently more accurate than other similar guided high explosives, only as Brendan O'Hara unhelpfully pointed out the Saudis have them too.  Sadly they're too busy taking part in the other proxy war in the region in Yemen to start bombing Syria again, so clearly the coalition needs our supply.

Only as Ewen MacAskill points out, the Americans and others have already fired so many Hellfires in Syria that they're running out of targets as it is.  Jeremy Corbyn's first question, as to whether or not joining in would increase the threat from IS brought the response that the threat could not be any more severe.  Cameron and the intelligence agencies may be right, but they're asking us to accept as coincidence that both Russia and France were targeted within weeks of their specifically targeting IS in Syria.  Of the 7 plots claimed to have been foiled so far this year linked to IS, 2 of those were the ones "exposed" in the media that resulted in no arrests and no explosives or weapons being found.  

Potential threats should not of course stop us from acting, but politicians should be honest with the public if the threat will be increased, especially when the action will hardly be integral to the wider cause.  Solidarity, helping our allies is not enough of a justification when there is no real plan, when there is no exit strategy beyond Islamic State being degraded and defeated at some point, when we have no idea of what Syria will look like after both IS and Assad have gone, other than there won't be a Swiss-style democracy and we won't make the mistakes of either Iraq or Libya in the aftermath.  The state will not be dismantled we are told, and yet how likely is that when all involved have a completely different image of how Syria will look once or rather if and when the fighting ends?

Cameron himself was at something near his best today.  He was respectful, didn't resort to cheap point scoring and kept any references to evil death cults to a minimum.  He didn't want to overstate the case he said, and yet he couldn't at times help himself.  He repeated the argument that we shouldn't be leaving our security in the hands of our allies, and yet that was the exact same case made by Michael Fallon the week before the Paris attacks.  Our security will either be improved, unaffected or damaged by our involvement.  It can't be all three.  

Nor is it reasonable as the prime minister put it to suggest he will only bring a vote when he is certain to win as doing otherwise would risk a propaganda coup for Islamic State.  This is exactly how the Tories behaved after losing the previous Syria vote, denouncing Labour and Miliband for giving succour to Assad.  Nor is it anything close to accurate to claim, as Cameron did, that "doing nothing is a counsel of despair".  We will not be doing nothing if parliament declines to authorise strikes in Syria.  This idea we have been doing nothing is utterly bogus; we have been doing everything other than nothing, and will go on doing so.  Our "doing nothing" is part of why we are here now.

As Jeremy Corbyn has written tonight to Labour MPs, in a letter I can't disagree with a word of, a convincing case is yet to be made.  There is a basis of sorts to the government's arguments, but it falls down first and foremost because it isn't honest or open enough about the reality on the ground in Syria.  If there is anything worth getting properly angry about, it's what's led us to this point, as while the government and Cameron tell what lies about how big of an impact our involvement could have, I can't gather the enthusiasm to do much other than sigh.  We've been here before.  We'll be here again.  If there now is an IS attack in this country, it won't be anything to do with our bombing, but down solely to the wickedness of an evil death cult.  Everything repeats.  Everything changes.

And yet it stays the same.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015 

The lucky chancellor, and the hopeless opposition.

Some say you make your own luck.  Football managers often claim that any refereeing decisions that wrongly go in their favour average out over a season.  Others still will claim that when you're on a downward trajectory anyway, fate tends to intervene all the more.

Then there are those who are just plain lucky.  George Osborne is such a person.  Whenever he's found himself in a hole, someone or something has always heard his pleas and prayers for help and came along to pull him out.  It would be remiss to not admit that some of his luck is of his own making, as whenever he has done something stupid he's recognised his mistake, whether it was the litany of errors in the omnishambles budget, or today with tax credits.  As the autumn statement and spending review demonstrates, the usual wisdom that making a full 180 always damages a politician is wrong, so long as the reversal is made early enough and is a total one.

Had the Office for Budget Responsibility not of course discovered there was £27bn down the back of the Treasury settee, Osborne would have been in complete stuck.  As well as upping its forecasts as to what income and corporation tax will bring in, a mammoth 2/3rds of the £27bn "windfall" comes from the OBR altering its tax modelling.  While there is nothing to suggest this wasn't solely the doing of the OBR, it does bear mentioning that the OBR figures are based on government finances up till the end of September, and not the ones from October that showed a large year-on-year rise in borrowing.  Whether they would have changed the OBR's working substantially or not is less important than how it demonstrates once again Osborne's good fortune.  He is the lucky chancellor.

Eventually though your luck must run out.  Whether that happens before Cameron exits Number 10, or it happens once Osborne moves next door, as is increasingly odds on, it will happen.  You can't go on acting with as such arrogance as Osborne did on tax credits, believing that no one would cotton on to how he was shafting the very people the Tories claimed to help and keep getting away with it.  You can't keep insisting on cuts to unprotected government departments that in the case of the Department of Transport will amount to 75% by the end of the decade, or an even more eye-watering 77% in the case of local government, without something breaking, and breaking irrevocably.  You can't have such luck as to get a £27bn windfall, and then still preach of the absolute necessity of running a surplus of £10bn by the time of the next election.

For now at least Osborne can sit back and enjoy for the umpteenth time paeans not just from the Tory press but the majority of the media.  How does he keep doing it they wonder?  Much of the answer is in how, as Aditya Chakrabortty points out, we've fallen for the same trick each time.  The Tories brief of how drastic and severe their cuts are, how tough it's going to be, then turns up George to tell us it's not going to be so bad after all.  Since the autumn statement last year each time Osborne has stood at the dispatch box, the Commons listening rapt, he's reduced the amount needing to be cut.  He's done it in different ways, whether through today's mixture of windfall and tax rises, to go with the tax rises he'd already announced back in July, but achieved it he has.  The amount of departmental cuts has now been reduced overall to a "mere" £10bn, and with the police also now protected, from fewer sources.

The usual budget day/autumn statement smoke and mirrors have naturally been turned to also.  The tax credit U-turn isn't a true one as Osborne has not abandoned his £12bn of welfare cuts; instead universal credit has been raided again before it properly rolls out, if it ever does such have been the problems associated with it.  Hidden within the wider good news is that the OBR revised downwards its forecast for both household disposable income and average earnings, making clear that the tepid growth of the last few years is here to stay.  The increases in the money for social care and for the police are also dependent on councils introducing precepts on both through council tax, which as Jo Maugham points out is highly regressive.

Once that mist has cleared, the Tories' priorities will be as clear as ever.  There was money showered on housing, but only on housing to buy; as for those who want to rent or won't ever be able to afford to buy, their options will dwindle further with the extension of right to buy to housing associations.  The 3% surcharge on stamp duty for second homes or those buying to let is welcome in the case of the former, but will almost certainly lead only to further increases in rent on the latter.  Post-2012 students will find the threshold at which they start paying back their loans has been frozen in spite of a consultation.  With the state pension increasing by £3.35 a week while other benefits will be frozen in line with inflation, it will once again be those most likely to vote who gain most.  As government spending heads south to 36.5% of GDP by 2020, 42% of that spending will be on either health or older people.  Of all the spending described as unsustainable in the past few years, surely that level on one department and one part of the population will prove to be so before much longer.

Osborne's plans at heart remain a huge gamble.  If it turns out the OBR has got its revenue forecasts wrong (again) then he has little room for manoeuvre, unless he makes the ultimate U-turn and cuts back on his dream surplus.  He could ask for further departmental cuts, but from where?  He could make further welfare cuts, but it's not even clear where the £12bn is going to come from now that tax credits are protected.  He's raised taxes on every area possible other than on income, national insurance and VAT, which the government plans to make illegal, it's worth remembering.  He could put corporation tax back up, but that would be a further U-turn and would anger business, already quietly seething both about the "national living wage" and now the new apprentice levy, or as the Tories would describe it were they in opposition, a jobs tax.

Sad as it is to say, a proper opposition would be pointing all of this out.  A proper opposition would have made as much as it could, not just out of the tax credits U-turn, but also how it means Osborne has fallen into the very welfare trap he laid for Labour, breaching the cap he foolishly legislated for.  A proper opposition would be asking where the £12bn in cuts to welfare will now be coming from, as the answer can only be through taking an axe to housing benefits, cutting employment and support allowance or hacking even further at JSA.  A proper opposition would while emphasising Osborne's miserable failure to clear the deficit in a single parliament also be setting out what it would be doing differently.  

What the opposition cannot keep doing is providing gifts to the government like John McDonnell quoting from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, regardless of his point or it being a joke.  No wonder the Labour benches looked so grim as he threw it across the Commons; no wonder George Osborne looked as though all his Christmases had come at once.  You can point the finger at the media and the anti-Corbyn majority in the PLP all you like, as I have and will keep doing; there's no getting away from how the real joke at the moment is the Labour (non)-leadership and its failure to do so much as the bare minimum.

Osborne will finish up laughing on the other side of his face.  When that will be when the opposition is so hopeless and the wider media so in awe of an opportunistic and lucky but otherwise mediocre chancellor remains to be seen.

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Monday, November 23, 2015 

How to get your war on.

If, like me, you find it fitfully amusing that every new threat regardless of its potency must always be described as the most deadly and worst since the year dot, you'll find a lot to delight you in UNSC Resolution 2249.  Passed unanimously last weekend and drafted principally by the French in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it's an absolute classic of the genre.  It is after all one thing for a idiot politician playing to the gallery to declare Islamic State to be a bigger threat to international peace and security than Hitler/Napoleon/Genghis Khan/Black Death/the discovery of fire, and quite another for the UN Security Council to agree and declare that anyone and everyone if they feel like it can join in the fun of chucking high explosives at "an evil death cult".

As that's what 2249 does.  It really does say that Islamic State "constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security".  Global?  Unprecedented?  Islamic State and its fighters might slaughter anyone they feel like and draw recruits from a wide variety of nations, but are they really a major threat to Japan, say, or your pick of any one of the South American nations?  Yes, they've executed hostages from China and Japan, but a threat?  

When it comes to unprecedented, on what reading of history exactly?  Are we talking since the creation of the UN or going further back?  Islamic State is a threat, certainly, but far more of one to the Middle East than anywhere else.  It was only able to expand as it has thanks to the failures of governance in Iraq and Syria; it calls itself a state and tries to operate as one but no state can last long when it has little real popular support and projects its power through violence.  It can send cells of supporters into democracies to launch attacks, and yet such tactics will bring its demise closer.  The threat might paradoxically in its death throes increase, as it loses ground and its safe havens, and the threat will likely not be extinguished entirely as another group drawing on the same ideology will rise, but Islamic State itself can be defeated.  The threat is only unprecedented if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the past, and crucially, if you want it to be such.

And politicians do want it to be so.  It's why the resolution also calls on "Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures", the UN's traditional euphemism for military action.  Whether that precisely makes our proposed joining in with the bombing legal or not is up for debate, although for most politicians that would be more than enough.  Indeed, Cameron and friends have been declaring that action without a UN resolution would be legal as it would be in self-defence.  That's based on an extremely broad reading of what constitutes self-defence, but then state sovereignty has been in retreat for some time, or at least has for states that aren't in the free world.  If anyone is worried about the plethora of countries that are involved or have been in bombing Islamic State, which is currently in double figures and might well at some point go beyond the 20 mark, then they aren't yet.  Come on down everyone, eastern Syria is so bracing!

Syria is the ultimate conclusion of the insanity of Western foreign policy post 9/11.  Taking the worst aspects of 80s foreign policy, which was to pick on a shithole nation and either supply and arm murdering bandits, for which see Nicaragua, or bomb it/invade it, for which see Tripoli/Grenada and combining it with the liberal interventionism of the 90s, not a single country the US/UK has bombed is a better place for it.  If you want an example of when intervention does work, you could look at Mali, but as last weekend demonstrated problems remain even there.  Syria is the culmination of the initial mistake of invading Iraq, the mistakes made post-invasion, and mistakes made since the uprising against Bashar Assad.  This is not to say we are overwhelmingly responsible, as we are not.  We might have created the conditions in which a group like Islamic State could flourish, but we didn't force the Iraqi Shia to persecute the Sunnis to the point where a substantial minority if not majority would ally with IS.  We did not invent the jihadist way of thinking, even if at times we sponsored groups that subscribed to it and have had a major role in the spreading of the ideology.

Without wanting to speak for those with similar views to mine, what I suspect most of us want is recognition, however slight, that we are here in part because of those mistakes.  I don't want an apology, although others might; I want our policy going forward to be informed by those mistakes.  To an extent, some lessons have been learned, as was proved in Libya.  Rather than try and rebuild a state we smashed, we left as soon as Gaddafi was dead.  Enjoy your liberation, we're off now.  We went from one extreme to another, with predictable results when Gaddafi was the state, as the Ba'ath in Iraq was the state and Assad in Syria is also the state.

It's also true that Iraq/Afghanistan have rightly made us wary of "putting boots on the ground".  That is an undoubted positive, as it's what groups like IS want more than anything else.  What we have not learned is that a secular dictator is in some cases preferable to the chaos of what comes after.  This doesn't mean we should have supported Mubarak in Egypt for instance, or have acquiesced to the military coup which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood, but that a feeble and contained Gaddafi is preferable to the civil war that has followed there.  In the face of IS and al-Nusra as well as all the other jihadist and Islamist groupings in Syria, demanding Assad leave immediately as we have been for years now has been a madness.  Yes, to an extent Assad has enabled those groups through his butchery, and there is an extremely arguable case that if we had intervened early in the uprising much of the carnage could have been avoided.  This overlooks however that it was not long before the Islamist rebels dominated the opposition, and that the cash from the Sunni Gulf states which subsequently went to those rebels would have without doubt gone to political parties instead with much the same views.  Seeing Syria as purely a civil conflict is too simplistic - it is a regional, proxy conflict.

At the same time we should take a step back and consider what would have happened had we intervened against Assad in 2013As Flying Rodent tweeted, no one seems to think it odd that a mere two years later we must now urgently target the very force that would have benefited most had we intervened.  Discount the idea we were merely going to chuck bombs at a range of targets in retaliation for the Ghouta attacks, as that made no sense then and even less now.  It would have been Libya a second time, with likely co-ordination with rebels on the ground.  Whether or not IS would have taken complete control is arguable, but a scenario where the jihadists even if fighting each other are in majority control would be the all but certain outcome.  Difficult as it is to imagine, the potential for further ethnic cleansing, even genocide and for more refugees fleeing than have already would have been massive.

Are our politicians grateful they were prevented from making that horrific mistake?  No, because they care far more about their own prestige and "our standing" in the world than such things.  Matthew d'Ancona informed us a few weeks ago of how Cameron and friends would never forgive Miliband for inadvertently stopping their march to war.  George Osborne yesterday told Andrew Marr that bombing IS is less about destroying the group and more about ourselves: "whether we want to shape the world or be shaped by the world", the chancellor claiming we had "retreated into ourselves a bit" after Iraq and the economic crash.  Buying the most useless and most expensive military aircraft ever created is about "projecting power abroad in order to defend ourselves at home".  It's no use whatsoever against non-state actors, the biggest threat we face and will continue to face according to the strategic defence review, but we must project our power in order to defend ourselves.

What the proposed war against IS comes down to in the end is our perceived standing in the world, our relationships with our allies, the vanity of politicians, and the one remaining way in which they can sell themselves to the voters.  Not bombing IS when every other major nation is just can't be allowed.  We must do something, even if it's completely negligible militarily.  We must be seen to be reliable, to not shrink into ourselves, to not be feeble, like the spineless Corbyn.  A P5 nation not involved in the struggle against "a global and unprecedented threat", one that has killed British citizens, even if not yet in Britain itself?  It's just unthinkable.  At the same time, Cameron could not possibly endure the humiliation of being defeated by the Commons for a second time on such a vote, and so it will only go ahead when the government is certain it can win, and by a sizeable majority.  It doesn't matter how bogus the arguments and justifications are for our involvement, especially the idea that by bombing IS in Syria we will reduce the threat to the UK when the opposite is more realistic, so long as they are made repeatedly and with force.

Lastly, there's the old Adam Curtis Power of Nightmares thesis.  Politicians have abandoned so much else which they used to control to either the markets or regulators.  They claim not to be able to buck the market in order to save jobs.  They can claim to have restored economic security and credibility until the next crash arrives.  What they can still do is pledge to protect us.  It doesn't matter if the wars they've fought in order to protect us have demonstrably, objectively made us less safe, as there is always a new threat more serious than the last about to come along.  It doesn't matter if they restrict civil liberties or want the ability to see our every interaction online as long as they say it's to stop terrorists in their tracks.  So long as we are acting elsewhere in order to stop the war from coming home, it doesn't matter.  It worked for over 10 years in Afghanistan.  It will undoubtedly work with Syria too.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015 

Idiot(s) with a cause.

Ken Livingstone is a prat.

He is also, sadly, about the only person who can be relied upon to defend Jeremy Corbyn in the media.  That he invariably in doing so says something daft that further riles the Anyone But Corbyn ranks makes the venture pointless, but so it goes.  If he genuinely didn't know that Kevan Jones had gone public with his battles with depression, then it's odd his remarks were so pointed and specific.  He didn't merely say Jones should consider psychiatric treatment, or that he was mad, rather that he should seek help from his GP for depression.

After a couple of hours of equivocation and no doubt after being told to make a proper apology by Corbyn's office, sorry did stop being the hardest word.  Ken's remarks were unquestionably offensive, prejudiced and stupid, but the idea he owes everyone else offended an apology is a nonsense politics needs less of.

Appointing Ken to the party's review of defence as co-chair with Maria Eagle was itself a provocation, albeit one with a point.  If any further evidence was needed that a sizeable number in the party are prepared to do everything other than declare open mutiny with the leadership, then yesterday's performance in the Commons was the final confirmation.  It wasn't just Ian Austin, Emma Reynolds, Chris Leslie and Ann Coffey who all expressed sentiments clearly directed at Corbyn, there was also Pat McFadden, shadow minister for Europe.  He asked the prime minister to "reject the view that sees terrorist acts as always being a response or a reaction to what we in the west do".  Cameron duly obliged, praising McFadden's "moral and intellectual clarity".  As opposed to Corbyn, who wasn't even sure if the police should be shooting dead "genocidal fascists", to quote another Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw.

There isn't much Corbyn can realistically do in response to such challenges to his authority, other than put the few supporters and sympathisers he does have into positions where they can temper the policies of his opponents or if nothing else stare them down.  Parachuting in Ken, as dumb and self-defeating as such a move is, still makes a kind of sense.  After Maria Eagle all but agreed with General Sir Nicholas Houghton on Andrew Marr, Corbyn read the riot act to the shadow cabinet, as he had every right to.  It's one thing to brief journalists or have disagreements in public, both of which are on-going; it's quite another to have your defence secretary all but accept her leader is a threat to national security as he won't incinerate everyone should the balloon go up.  As is obvious, Corbyn's attempt to restore something approaching order has been ignored, as his opponents seem to have decided that if their leader won't sign up for mutually assured destruction, they'll take the party down with them anyway.

This clearly cannot go on.  If anything, David Cameron today went easy on Corbyn at PMQs for the reason that the opposition leader's real enemies are all seated behind him, a situation he can no doubt empathise with.  He didn't as much as mention the Ken farrago because he didn't need to, leaving a final comment on "shoot to kill" for the last answer instead.

If the point has already been reached where any slim confidence some Labour MPs had in Corbyn has gone, then they should make that clear.  They're fully entitled to take the view that as Corbyn was a serial rebel they can do and say whatever they like, but they ought to reflect on the damage it is doing and will do to Labour as a whole.  Atul Hatwal, despite advocating the exact same steps as his paranoid colleagues accuse Momentum of planning, is right there is no unifying alternative to Corbyn and not the slightest appetite for any move as yet.

Should a majority in the PLP really want to get rid of Corbyn, then they have to box a lot cleverer than they have so far.  Criticising their leader in parliament, to their journalist pals and over such idiotic things is not going to win them any new friends, and only encourage the keyboard jockeys like me to call them out.  Instead, let Corbyn do their work for them: many more interviews as catastrophic as the ones on Monday, if not necessarily for the reasons they believe, and it will become ever more apparent that he isn't improving as he should be.  Rather than plotting in public and complaining about Corbyn supporters daring to criticise them, they need to get organised, coalesce around an alternative who can appeal to both left and right and start the process of preparing the ground.  At the moment all they're doing is putting the equivalent of two fingers up to the 60% who voted for Corbyn, and no amount of sneering at the "selectorate" is going to make their actions more palatable.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015 

14 years of war, and it's whose fault again?

It's a tale in essence of two deleted tweets.  On Friday night at 10, while the siege at the Bataclan was still on-going, John Rentoul of the Independent, noted Blair fan and supporter of assorted interventions sent out a message asking "Will Corbyn say France made itself a target?"  He fairly swiftly erased it, and the next morning made a fulsome apology.  Stop the War Coalition meanwhile tweeted out a link to an article it had sourced from a certain Chris Floyd, titled "Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East".  They too later deleted the tweet, and the article from their site. 

You can no doubt guess which of these messages was brought up in the House of Commons this afternoon.  In fact, it wasn't made reference to just the once, but three times, all by Labour MPs.  The article itself, despite being fairly standard, simplistic anti-war boilerplate does not blame France or the French in the slightest.  It makes no direct reference to France's taking part in strikes against Islamic State.  It condemns the attacks in no uncertain terms, as does the actual statement from Stop the War.

This makes no odds, for there are only two groups of people that care what the Stop the War coalition thinks about anything.  First, the Stop the War coalition; and second, those who got their war in Iraq but ended up losing the argument.  Ever since they've wasted their time pointlessly trolling the StWC, achieving precisely nothing except making themselves feel better.  The prior example to this was activists from the Syria Solidarity UK group turning up to the last StWC public meeting.  SSUK wants a "limited" UK military intervention in Syria; StWC doesn't.  Surprise, there was conflict, spun as the StWC refusing to listen to ordinary Syrians, even while the actual peace talks between the various powers involved in the war have no Syrian involvement whatsoever.

The most egregious remarks in the Commons came from Ian Austin.  In his view those suggesting that Paris had "reaped the whirlwind", or that "Britain's foreign policy has increased not diminished the threats to our own national security are not just absolving the terrorists of responsibility, but risk fuelling the sense of grievance and resentment which can develop into extremism and terrorism".  David Cameron agreed.  "We have to be very clear to those people who are at risk of being radicalised that this sort of excuse culture is wrong. It’s not only wrong for anyone to argue that Paris was brought about by Western policy. It is also very damaging for young Muslims growing up in Britain to think that any reasonable person could have this view."  This it's worth noting came after Cameron had pointedly responded to Jeremy Corbyn stating President Obama had recognised that Islamic State grew out of the Iraq war by saying "we should not seek excuses for a death cult".

At times like these it's hard not to wonder if you've gone through the looking glass.  Forget for a second about the clear attempt to frame those who so much as suggest that foreign policy might have played a role, not in the Paris attacks themselves, but in the wider threat we face as terrorist enablers.  Forget that some Labour MPs are so caught up in their hatred of Jeremy Corbyn they are willing to ignore President Obama and Tony Blair, both of whom have recognised that Islamic State owes its existence to the Iraq war.

Let's instead just focus on the idea that our foreign policy over the past 14 years has decreased the terrorist threat.  Austin was referring to the speech Corbyn was due to give on Saturday but cancelled in light of the Paris attacks, where he would have said that "For the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East. They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security in the process."  

Which part of that statement is incorrect?  The security services, the home secretary, the prime minister, all inform us that the threat we face from terrorism is the most serious it has ever been.  Have those wars made us safer?  For short periods they might have done, prior to Islamic State rising again, with al-Qaida struggling to stay relevant.  That is surely not the case now, when our failures in Iraq, even if we are not even close to being fully responsible, have undeniably helped Islamic State to grow.  Our policy on Syria, of hoping that by letting or encouraging the Saudis, Qataris and Emirate states to fund whichever Islamist/jihadist groups they felt like would lead to the fall of Assad has not decreased the threat.  It has increased it.

So too would joining in with the airstrikes on Islamic State increase the threat we face.  Don't though take it from me; take it from our American allies, with the defence secretary no less stating that Russia would pay the price for its intervention.  Well golly, they did, didn't they?  The Daily Beast went so far as to report that some in the US government "privately delighted in the news that Russia was made to pay".  Seeing as the prime minister and other politicians are so keen to police what are and what are not acceptable views on foreign policy, we could also remember that earlier on Friday Cameron was insisting killing Mohammad Emwazi was "a blow at the heart of Isil".  The Sun's front page, before it realised it was in appalling taste in light of what was happening but not before 20 had already been confirmed dead, had a picture of Emwazi with the headline "JIHAD IT COMING".  It's perfectly fine to say that our enemies had it coming and enjoy the schadenfreude, but when someone suggests perhaps there could be a link between our failures and terrorist attacks it's time to get out the ducking stool.

The fact is that to plenty of Labour MPs and their friends in the media, their real problem with Corbyn has always been his views on foreign policy more than anything else.  It admittedly doesn't help when he fails to explain himself clearly, whether it's in interviews or at meetings of the PLP.  It was painfully obvious however that his comments on "shoot to kill" to Laura Kuenssberg were in relation to manhunts, not in bringing an end to situations similar to those in Paris.  Plenty of his critics are happy to be wilfully obtuse so long as it's seen to damage him.  Things like how "shoot to kill" policies have gone horribly wrong in the past, or how the two murderers of Lee Rigby, who charged at the police while armed were not shot dead are unimportant.  When it comes to Corbyn's comments on the legality or alternatives to the drone strike on Emwazi, they point to how it would be impossible to have acted otherwise.  It almost certainly would have been, and yet time and again the same people make the case for military intervention without the slightest thought for the implications or to the how it should happen as opposed to the why it must right now.

If the prospect of Corbyn attending the Stop the War Christmas fundraising party really is enough to make shadow cabinet ministers consider resigning, perhaps it's time they re-examined their priorities.  How exactly did they think Corbyn was going to respond to a terrorist attack on the scale of Paris?  Did they honestly believe he would come out swinging, agreeing entirely with Dave in his "the case for action has grown stronger since Paris" claim?  Did they really think he would go all gung-ho for the sake of it, when the best thing an opposition leader can do is to urge calm and for cool heads to prevail?  Do they genuinely imagine that if Corbyn came over the military hard man that the public would be impressed by it?

Of course they don't.  The only thing John Rentoul did wrong it turns out is sending his tweet too soon.  It doesn't seem to occur to Corbyn's opponents that the reason they're stuck with him at least for now is because of their own failures.  They lost to a near pacifist hard leftist and rather than consider if there's a reason why the Labour party membership voted for such a person, they insist on carrying on regardless.  The attempt to pillory and silence anyone who thinks there might be more to attacks like the ones in Paris than they hate us and our freedoms is predictable, but also revealing of a total refusal to accept even the most basic lessons of the past 14 years.  What amazes above all however is that after those 14 years, somehow, incredibly, it's the people that have failed to stop any of those wars that are the ones accused of making excuses for and giving succour to the terrorists.

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Monday, November 09, 2015 

And they say Corbyn's the disrespectful one.

One of the lesser noticed pieces of anti-Corbyn bluster from the dog end of his idiosyncratic first week as leader was from a general in the Sunday Times.  The general wasn't named, naturally, but we were assured he had served in Northern Ireland, part of the reason he felt such ire for Corbyn and John McDonnell's dealings with Sinn Fein.  Should Corbyn come to power and "jeopardise the security of this country", such as by scrapping Trident or emasculating the army, although it's not exactly clear just how much more there will be to emasculate once the Conservatives are through, then "people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that".

Many took this as the general threatening a full scale mutiny, or worse, understandably.  It didn't seem to occur to the general that the only way Corbyn could come to power would be through a general election, where presumably at the very least the policy of dispensing with our nuclear weapons would be in the Labour manifesto.  If it did, then it made no odds, reminding of Henry Kissinger's remarks about Chile: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people".

Now, if I were prime minister, the very fact a general was so much as discussing the idea of a mutiny, let alone hinting it could go further even than that would be enough for me to want to know who this general was and to pull him in for an extremely frank discussion about the nature of democracy.  If his answers weren't suitably reassuring, I would want him either sacked or demoted to the ranks.  There is much said about slippery slopes and logical fallacies, but once anyone in a position of military authority starts talking about "using whatever means possible" to defy a prime minister, it's gone beyond asking for a rethink or warning about the potential consequences to somewhere quite different.  If I was David Cameron, I would be deeply concerned about a general talking in such a way regardless of his remarks being directed at the leader of the opposition.

If Downing Street was alarmed by the reports, then any concerns were presumably addressed prior to yesterday's appearance by General Sir Nicholas Houghton on the Andrew Marr show.  Whether or not Houghton was the general with the hotline to the Murdoch press, he decided that on Remembrance Sunday of all days he should answer a question about Trident.  If Corbyn's stance on never using Trident was "translated into power", then Houghton would be concerned, as "you use the deterrent every second of every minute of every day".  Apart from the conjuring up of the potential incineration of millions on the day set aside to remember the fallen, reason enough for Houghton to decline to answer the question, this was about as blatant an intervention into party politics and indeed politics in general as can be imagined.  Nor was he content with just talking about Trident, also commenting on Sky News on how the lack of a decision on bombing Islamic State in Syria was "letting down our allies".

It's hard not to conclude that Houghton's comments were part of the general "get Corbyn" sentiment of the entire day, a view only encouraged by the government backing the general.  Had Corbyn bent over double at the Cenotaph he would have been accused of mocking the entire ceremony; as it was, his nod rather than "protocol-following" bow instead landed him the brickbats that had been in preparation ever since he committed the crime of not singing the national anthem.  Corbyn was nothing other than respectful and respectable in everything he did yesterday, from laying his wreath to then attending a further ceremony in his constituency.  All the pieces had been written beforehand, waiting only to be altered according to what could be gotten away with.

If there ought to be one day a year free from agitating from yet more war, it should be Remembrance Sunday.  Instead, we had the general and ministers once again saying how desperately unfair and immoral it is that parliament won't let them bomb whatever the hell they like.  Standing directly behind Corbyn was a past Labour leader whom, whatever you think of the rights or wrongs of his wars, has many questions still hanging over him.  His patriotism, his respect for the dead is not questioned.  Nor is that of David Cameron, whose media team felt it would be a good idea to photoshop a poppy onto a stock photo of the prime minister, hoping no one would notice.

Precisely what it is the Tories or the Sun and Telegraph think it is they're trying to achieve with all this is not clear.  If the aim is to try to frame Corbyn as this disrespectful, anti-military peacenik, then they can surely leave that in the safe and reliable hands of the Anyone But Corbyn ranks on the Labour backbenches, within the party and on the wider left.  Nothing they've could do, will do, will live up to the claims of Corbyn handing over policy to the Stop the War coalition, to give just one example.

What this continued abuse of remembrance to make political points will do is further the distaste increasing numbers have for the entire period, which is far from now only affecting those inclined towards such feelingsThe Royal British Legion claim 80% wear a poppy; by my entirely unscientific measure of walking through the odd crowd in shopping centres, my guess would be nearer 50%, if that.  The bullying, as that's what it is, of public figures who for whatever reason are seen without a poppy leaves an ever more unpleasant taste in the mouth.  When you make a practice all but compulsory, as remembrance is in distinct danger of becoming, there are always those who are going to resist.  The only people who will suffer from this behaviour in the long run are those whom require the help of the RBL and other military charities, the same individuals whom the the Sun and politicians affect to care so deeply about.  Such considerations are apparently secondary to short-term political gain.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015 

Is anything not the fault of Labour and Corbyn?

The reports in both the Guardian and Times this morning that the government will not attempt to bring a motion before the Commons authorising military action against Islamic State in Syria add up to a humiliating defeat for David Cameron, albeit one clouded by the very nature of a vote not taking place.  It allows Downing Street to claim that in fact no decision has been taken, and that at any moment we might find it back on the agenda.  The truth though is surely that the Conservative whips have done the maths, and found that however many Labour MPs they think will support the government, especially if as promised Labour allows a free vote, it won't be enough to overcome the number of Tory rebels.

It's worth remembering that what was or is proposed is so slight as to be all but pointless.  Essentially all the government wants is permission for the military to bomb Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq, where it has permission to do so courtesy of the Iraqis.  Regardless of any other considerations, this does have a certain logic to it: IS's supply lines and main base are both in Syria, where they moved into space either vacated by the Assad regime or deemed dispensable when the emphasis was on protecting the area surrounding the capital Damascus.  Moreover, despite both sides maintaining plausible deniability, it's been obvious for a long time that the Americans/rest of anti IS coalition and the Syrians have been cooperating when it comes to fighting Islamic State, at least on air strikes.

For any government, especially any recent British government to not be able to get so slight a military initiative through parliament is a remarkable showing of weakness.  Not of the military variety, but of the political.  Two other things are already in the government's favour: that British troops embedded with the American military have carried out air strikes in Syria; and that under the legal justification of HE'S COMING RIGHT FOR US, Cameron authorised the extrajudicial killing of a British citizen via drone strike in the country.  On that very legal basis, it's arguable that the government could claim Islamic State poses a similar threat to this country by its mere presence in Syria, and so dispense with a Commons vote altogether.

Except it's apparent Cameron's standing remains so low with some of his backbenchers, despite his success in winning a small majority, that to act in such a way would be to stretch his capital way too thin.  All Cameron wants really is to say to the rest of the anti-IS coalition, principally the Americans, that we're with you.  This will amount to little more than a very slight further sharing of the military burden, with reports suggesting that of 5,000 air strikes carried out thus far in Iraq, the UK was responsible for 300, or less than 10%.  That he cannot apparently persuade enough of his backbenchers of the importance of such a move vis-a-vis our relationship with the Americans will be all the more alarming to the party's Atlanticist wing.

Cameron's cause would not be so desperate if the campaign against Islamic State looked like being a success.  As today's report by the Foreign Affairs Committee sets out, any advances have been either inconsequential or negated by losses elsewhere.  Islamic State cannot be defeated from the air, and as the possible partners on the ground are either sectarian or unreliable, there is little cause for optimism that any major victories are in the offing.  Ministers know full well they cannot argue that our taking part in raids into Syria will have anything like a dramatic effect, and so are left with appealing to the logic of doing so and making the inconclusive at best arguments about legality.  They aren't so crass as to say out loud how principally it's about making up the numbers in the coalition, knowing that any previous attachment there was to always being alongside the Americans disappeared with Iraq the second time round.  They have almost nowhere to go.

Not that that's prevented our getting our war on in the past.  Cameron's failure is one of authority, of party management, and only then do the actual arguments about chucking a few more bombs at IS come into play.  What is utterly absurd is that just as when the Conservatives and their acolytes pinned all the blame on Ed Miliband for the failure to act against Assad after the Ghouta attacks in 2013, so now they want to blame Labour again without accepting the slightest responsibility themselves.  Apparently there is "not the certainty of support from Labour", as though the opposition should blithely accept the government is acting in good faith and has made a decent case for yet another intervention, when the former is arguable and the latter just simply hasn't happened.   In the Times Roger Boyes (fnarr fnarr) describes Russia's intervention and "Corbyn's non-interventionist legions" as acting as a pincer movement, while even in the Graun mention is made of how a difference of opinion with the leadership, on a free vote no less, could apparently influence reselection after the constituency boundaries have been redrawn.  Such is the paranoia within the PLP at the moment.  It doesn't seem to matter that those who are disposed towards military action have tried their best to help out the government, urging them in the words of John Woodcock to "decide on a strategy that makes a difference" and then set out the case fully.  The government has ignored them, both because said strategy tends to involve no fly zones and safe areas, both now definitively off the table after Russian intervention, and because the government has never been interested in doing anything other than picking up some of the slack from the rest of the coalition.

Which is where the arguments in favour of intervention always fall down.  Our proposed military involvement in Syria has never been about protecting civilians, either in 2013 or today.  There are both good and bad reasons for why this has been the case, but to pretend that either would have a dramatic effect on the humanitarian situation just doesn't follow.  Essentially what were billed as revenge attacks on Assad for using chemical weapons may have morphed into something else, just as the responsibility to protect was invoked in Libya only then to be used to justify regime change, but the case being made was little more than we had to act as President Obama's red line had been breached.  On the contrary, the continued attempts at reaching some sort of settlement, however bleak the chances of negotiations succeeding and then being accepted by everyone other than Islamic State seem, at least offer a smidgen of hope.

This is why it rankles when the likes of Rafael Behr continue to claim that Miliband stopping Cameron getting the hellfire missiles out must then be evaluated by how Assad continues to butcher his people.  Hatred of or hostility to Corbyn outweighs everything else, including capitalising on such Tory weakness, as proved by Labour Uncut claiming the party has outsourced foreign policy to Stop the War, making its foreign policy a "debased joke".  Behr meanwhile writes of how Miliband "indulged" and "deferred" to the left, and how Obama and Cameron are also not wanton warmongers, despite their continuing with the failed ones of their predecessors and making such a success of Libya.  Some might in fact reason that makes them worse - that rather than learn from past mistakes they have carried on with conflicts they never truly believed in.  Where the foreign affairs committee sets out the complexity of the conflict in Syria, and identifies 7 separate points the government should explain in making its case for intervention, many are still insistent on viewing everything as either black or white.

P.S. Worth bringing slightly more attention to is this non-fact sheet from the FCO on just who the moderate opposition are in Syria.  Basically, if they're not Islamic State or al-Nusra, then they're moderate.  To be fair, if we really did limit our engagement with rebels in Syria to all those criteria, we'd be working with about 10 people and a dog, so you can see the FCO's predicament.

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Monday, November 02, 2015 

Be as dissenting and creative as possible? Yeah, OK Tristram.

Once upon a time, the Daily Telegraph was a newspaper.  It was regarded as a very good newspaper, offering the widest and most in-depth news section of any of the broadsheets.  Even during the time Conrad Black was owner the news section remained in much the same shape as it always had, if the comment section went even further to the right.  Then came the reign of the Barclay brothers, who live offshore and favour profitability above everything else.  Gone has any real semblance of separation between the news and editorial sections, the lowest moment probably not being the paper's extremely limited coverage of the HSBC tax evasion scandal, due (allegedly) to the lucrative advertising contract between the two, but instead the paper's editor sending out an email the night before the general election urging readers to vote Conservative.

When the paper isn't shilling for any variety of grotesque regimes through sections paid for by said governments, it's running articles for which it doesn't have the slightest evidence but are motivated by doing over the Labour party in any way, shape or form.  Like today's piece claiming that Kate Godfrey, who previously said that Jeremy Corbyn's appointment of "fascism apologist" Seumas Milne as communications director was to devalue everything Labour stands for and shame it in front of the world, was rejected by unions at the first stage after she put her name forward to be the prospective parliamentary candidate for Oldham West and Royton.

The Telegraph's story is all but needless to say based on a single unnamed source, when a simpler explanation might be that 6 prospective candidates have already made the list, and there was little point putting someone on it who has criticised the party leadership in hyperbolic terms.  The sort of terms that make it very easy for journalists to put yet another "Corbyn's a terrorist sympathising loon" story in their paper.  Clearly, what Labour should have done is accepted Godfrey onto the shortlist just to make crystal how open and encompassing the party remains under Corbyn, just as the previous leadership would have done had someone openly critical of Blair, Brown or Miliband applied to stand.  Obviously, if a journalist went along for an interview with the Telegraph and said the Barclay brothers were a pair of weirdos running a once great newspaper into the ground and that editor Chris Evans was just a lackey for them without any ideas of his own, they would have been hired forthwith.

Such things are nonetheless to be expected, just as it was also predictable that newspapers would discover that a couple of years back Corbyn said he couldn't see much point to commemorating the first world war, except to remember the slaughter of so many.  It doesn't seem to matter he was referring directly to the government's plans for memorials, rather than any sort of reference to the yearly commemoration of all war dead, of which there was wider criticism and comment on.  According to Matthew d'Ancona this is still enough to with "no exaggeration" make Corbyn unfit to prime minister, as he is apparently unable to see "remembrance as a collective expression of gratitude" rather than a "celebration of warfare".

Trying to paint Corbyn as unpatriotic, as unsympathetic or hostile to Our Boys is just about the oldest trick in the book, which is no doubt why UKIP plan to run with it during the Oldham by-election.  We don't so much as need to mention that not donkey jacket, or need remember the Sun tried to do over Gordon Brown for daring to write a personal letter of condolence in his dodgy handwriting to the family of a soldier who died in Afghanistan to know where this is all going.  It also doesn't really need pointing out these renewed attacks came after Labour had a good week - Osborne fell into his own trap on tax credits, Corbyn accordingly trounced David Cameron at PMQs, time clearly to turn debate back to Corbyn and all those Labour MPs scared witless about being purged by this Marxist madman.

Step forward Tristram Hunt, whose comments have also been somewhat misconstrued, or rather used in probably the way he knew full well they would be.  The best way to serve the Corbyn leadership, he told students at Cambridge's Labour Club, was to be "as dissenting and creative as possible".  Tristram is determined to be the former while there's not as yet much to suggest he will ever be the latter, but let's give him a chance.  His comments on Labour becoming a sect are not in truth that far from a warning someone like, ahem, I would give: that there is a danger of falling into the fallacy of mistaking friendship circles on social media as representative and othering anyone who disagrees.  The same though obviously applies to the diminishing moderate or centrist wing of the party, currently priding itself on not being in thrall to Corbyn.

More questionable was Hunt's peroration, urging the 1% in attendance to "take responsibility and leadership" going forward.  You could argue it might just have been the PPE tendency in all parties that has led to Westminster becoming so derided and sneered at, that we need MPs from all backgrounds rather than a narrow elite.  Corbyn might not be the leader many of us would have chose if we were to pick someone both left-wing and electable, but he most certainly is an antidote to politics as usual.  Hunt and the other Corbyn-baiters in Labour have yet to offer a realistic alternative beyond the electoral strategy of winning 36% of the vote on a platform barely indistinguishable to that of the Conservatives, one that seems palatable neither to the electorate or Labour supporters and members.  When that creativity does occur, as it hopefully will, it deserves hearing and considering.  Till then, Hunt is doing little other than helping those who don't need any help in denigrating Labour.

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Friday, October 16, 2015 

Corbyn's shit and you can't take it!

It's over lads.  Time to go home.  Rob Marchant on Labour Uncut has spoken:

It is now taken as accepted everywhere in British politics, with the exception of some parts of the Labour Party’s rank and file, that Labour cannot win an election with Corbyn at the helm.

Yes.  We cannot possibly wait for as long as say next May, and see whether there is any sort of uptick in Labour's fortunes in Scotland or in the local elections.  Barely two months into Corbyn's leadership, it's accepted everywhere that he cannot win an election.  Why, he's been denounced by everyone other than the Corbynistas, who will Corbsplain to you precisely why it is he will take 100% of the vote in 2020 and lead us all to the promised land of facial hair and teetotalism.  He will wipe away every fear of austerity from our minds, and there will be no more Cameron, or Farage or Sturgeon or Kendall anymore, for the former things will have passed away.

Everything, you see, is either Corbyn or McDonnell's fault.  No one can deny that  Monday's u-turn on the fiscal charter reflected extremely badly on the leadership, suggesting that McDonnell had not so much as read the document itself.  Yet, rather than vote with the new leadership once they had made the right decision, 21 MPs abstained for reasons of pure spite.  If only, some ought to reflect, there had been a similar near riot akin to the one at Monday's meeting of the parliamentary Labour party after Harriet Harman's fuckwitted we cannot oppose the welfare bill epiphany, Corbyn might not be leader now.

Besides, I realise we all have ten second memories, but I do recall that Miliband's first choice as shadow chancellor was only half joking when he said the first thing he needed to do was get an economics for beginners primer.  I'd rather have someone who admits his mistake, embarrassing as it was, than someone who doesn't have a clue.

Worth recalling also is what the Labour whips thought of Corbyn and McDonnell's own rebellions.  Corbyn was a "lost cause", while McDonnell was a "shit".  At the moment, Corbyn's opponents for opposition's sake are acting like the latter.  It isn't a good look.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015 

Now comes the hard bit.

Much as it pains me to say it, Jeremy Corbyn's first conference speech as Labour leader was without doubt worse than Ed Miliband's own debut effort 5 years ago.  Looking back at it now, Miliband's speech was pretty much the template of what it was thought a mass appeal political address should be: saying not too much but just enough about the speaker himself, acknowledging the public's concerns through the device of an ordinary voter whom the speaker had met, and attempting to deal with the worries of the audience in the hall and those of viewers at home.  Despite all this or rather because of it, as Miliband was never going to be able to pull off the Blair/Cameron bullshit act with the same panache, it just didn't work.  What at least read fine on the page failed in the delivery, which was nervous and stultifying.

Corbyn's speech also reads fine.  It's disjointed, there's no real overall theme, but it's solid.  There are some great passages, which we've since learned were borrowed from Richard Heller with his permission, and there's very little in it to disagree with.  Sadly, as haltingly delivered by Corbyn, with the same tripping over of words seen at PMQs and the other speeches since he was elected leader, it came across in much the same way, one level above shambolic.  Allowances can only go so far: it was apparently the first time Corbyn has used an autocue, the not being a consummate politician is part of his appeal, it won't matter as it'll be cut up for a 3-minute report on the news, and no one really pays attention to conference speeches in any case.

This is all true up to a point.  Cameron's conference speeches as prime minister have all been godawful and it hasn't done him the slightest harm.  Ed Miliband's subsequent speeches, especially his 2012 and 2013 efforts, were massively improved, and the price cap on energy prices policy subsequently set the political agenda.  Did it make a scrap of difference, and conversely did his "forgetting" about the deficit in 2014 have any great impact?  Again, probably not.  Minds were likely already made up by that point.

With Corbyn, they are very much yet to be.  Along with his first PMQs, this speech will be the beginning of voters making up their minds.  By no means will it be all bad: the difference between Corbyn and the political leaders of the other major parties could not be more stark.  An unspun man of experience who calls not just for a more caring society, but also for a kinder politics, demanding that the personal attacks cease.  A leader who laughs and makes bad jokes about press attacks on him.  A politician who doesn't want to impose his own view on the party, instead wanting debate to flourish and for advice to be given freely.  All are highly commendable and endearing qualities, likely to appeal.

The problem is the speech as a whole was directed at the hall itself, rather than anyone outside it.  Conference itself lapped it up, as they were always likely to; Tony Blair's shtick was to pick a different fight every year with his own party, and how different this was from those days.  Even Ed Miliband in his first speech recognised however that the battle was to win support not in the hall, but out in the country.  We lost 5 million votes he said, asking how the party could win them back.  He didn't have the answers, but at least he posed the question.  To be sure, Corbyn didn't hold back in taking the fight to the Tories, denouncing their cuts to tax credits, contrasting it with their choice to all but abolish inheritance tax, and throwing straight back at them their line on Corbyn and Labour being a threat to national and economic security.  Of the few new policies on offer, the pledge to look at making the self-employed eligible for maternity and paternity pay will no doubt be popular.

For those who stayed with the Tories or went to UKIP though, there was very little here to make them think again.  The politics of the last 5 years will almost certainly end up being defined by the Tory strategy of being as nasty as they could get away with being to the unemployed, immigrants, those on benefits and the poorest in society in general.  Rather than be embarrassed by the growth in food banks or the rise in zero hours contracts, Cameron shrugged it all off.  Moreover, so too did the voters: they might not have been voting for the Tory manifesto or for the UKIP policy of being arseholes to everyone specifically when they put their cross on the ballot, but do so they did.  They preferred the hateful, envious, kicking down politics of the right enough to give UKIP 4 million votes and for the Tories to win an overall majority.  For Corbyn to appeal for a kinder politics is certainly noble and welcome, but for it to actually happen?  At this point it would be almost to go against the very nature of the country we've become.  Sporadic outbursts of humanity aside, the default is nearly always to say no when the request for help comes.

As strong as Heller's lines then were about the Tories expecting the people of Britain to accept what they're given, the sad fact is that's precisely what they did.  Given the choice between what they saw as economic competence, regardless of the reality, and a Labour party they didn't trust, they opted for Osborne's self-defeating austerity and everything that goes with it.  In this respect, yesterday's speech by John McDonnell was far more successful, especially when all it really did was reheat Ed Balls' policies and announce a host of reviews.  Despite this it came across as credible, with all the steel that Balls' pronouncements had lacked.

Perhaps Corbyn felt McDonnell had covered those bases.  He might well have felt that he still needs to consolidate his power within the parliamentary party, extending his hand before he addresses how Labour goes about winning the next election.  He could be of the mind that first he needs to unite the left, drawing back Green defectors and any SNPers having second thoughts by making clear it's time to come home to a Labour party which shares their values.  Viewed on that basis alone, the speech was a success.

To give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt, it could be he simply doesn't yet have a strategy to win over undecided voters.  There's nothing wrong with that for the moment, not least when the only alternatives offered thus far have been to emulate the Tories more.  It does however only encourage the dullards who keep on repeating that Corbyn's supporters aren't interested in winning, not that they need any encouragement (I do nonetheless fear there is more than a smidgen of truth to Janan Ganesh's view that some of Corbyn's supporters are "comfortable").  To not so much as mention the defeat though, to recognise that the party was rejected and to examine the reasons as to why was an unforced mistake.

Corbyn has done the "easy" part.  He now needs to convince he can appeal beyond his natural constituency.  Not doing the bare minimum when he has so much goodwill is a failure he may live to regret.

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