Further to my statement last week (click here to view the statement), I listened very intently to the Prime Minister last Thursday when he came to the House of Commons to present his case for extending British airstrikes to ISIS targets in Syria. Despite my scepticism, I was willing to be convinced. In many ways I was hoping to be convinced. However, I cannot say that I was convinced. I therefore intend to vote against British airstrikes in Syria when the vote takes places tomorrow.
My fundamental concern remains that, whilst I want ISIS to be destroyed, I do not believe that airstrikes alone will be a sufficient strategy to do this. Ground forces will be required. The PM clearly acknowledged this in his statement, but his claim that the Free Syrian Army has sufficient forces to do this is not one I can agree with. Even if these forces are as numerous (i.e. 70,000 strong) as claimed, many are already engaged in fighting the pro-Assad regime Syrian Army. It seems the Government are still unwilling to acknowledge the unpalatable truth, which is that it is not possible to intervene on one side of a civil war without giving de facto assistance to the other side. ISIS clearly represent a threat to us in the UK, but the Assad regime has killed by far the most civilians and significantly fuelled the refugee crisis affecting Europe. There are no easy or simple options here.
Essentially, we are being asked to commit British forces to a theatre of war in which they would be pro-Free Syrian Army (FSA), anti-ISIS, and anti-Assad. In the same theatre are the Russians, who are anti-FSA, anti-ISIS, but pro-Assad. ISIS themselves are anti-FSA, anti-Russia, and anti-us. Meanwhile in Iraq, our allies against ISIS are the Turks and the Kurds, but they oppose each other. Turkey is also in a major stand off with Russia, having shot down one of their planes. In addition, our ally in the Middle East Saudi Arabia has a history of support for ISIS, whilst our major opponent, Iran, is on the same side as us in opposing them. I could go on, but it is reasonable to simply say this is a very complex situation that requires more than just military engagement. A wider diplomatic and political agreement, supported by regional ground forces and possibly then, Western air power, is the only way forward. This lack of a compelling overall strategy is why I will vote against the Government tomorrow, and it is a point echoed by many other members of the House of Commons, such as the Conservative Chair of the Defence Select Committee Julian Lewis MP.
Finally, much of the debate on this issue has been interpreted through the prism of the internal politics of the Labour Party. I regret this a great deal. I can promise all constituents that, on matters such as these, I make up my own mind regardless of the intentions of colleagues or the party leadership. The first thing I ever did as our MP, just days after the 2010 election, was attend the funeral of a young man from Hyde who lost his life in action in Afghanistan. Amongst a great many emotions felt that day, I promised myself I would only ever vote for British military action abroad if I was absolutely convinced of the case that had been made for it. There is a case for action in Syria, but I am not convinced it is sufficient to warrant voting yes tomorrow. My vote will therefore be to oppose the Government.
Photo credit: Freedom House (Creative Commons license)
On Wednesday 2nd December, I will present the ‘Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill’ to Parliament as a 10 Minute Rule Motion. The Bill will seek to change the way MP’s are elected, from the current ‘First Past the Post’ system, to the Additional Member System used in places such as Wales, Scotland and Germany.
First Past the Post as a system for electing MP’s is simply unfair and no longer fit for purpose. It has led to a narrow and unrepresentative politics, which in turn has turned people off from voting and politics as a whole. The last general election saw massive discrepancies in the number of seats a party got compared to their share of the vote. Not only is this hugely undemocratic, but the fact that we have reached 2015 yet still many people are unlikely to ever be represented by an MP from the party they vote for is shameful.
The Additional Member System is already used in Scotland and Wales and we use a form of PR for European Parliament elections, so PR is not an alien concept to British voters. My Bill, which has cross-party support from Lib Dems, Greens and others, seeks to address the current imbalance and bring a greater semblance of fairness to our democracy.
The headline from yesterday’s Autumn Statement, Chairman Mao aside, is George Osborne’s apparent U-turn on cuts to tax credits, but that was just about the only piece of good news there was. What the Chancellor was hoping this would distract from is the devastating and swinging cuts that are about to be inflicted upon already decimated local authorities.
Tameside Council has already seen its budget effectively halved since 2010, having to make cuts of £104 million already, with another £90 million to come, and the cuts will keep on coming. It’s not just Tameside where these cuts are being felt, as you may have seen from my question to the Prime Minister last week, but shamefully more often than not it is less well-off areas who are seeing the biggest cuts.
New measures such as social care funding being moved from national to local taxation is especially worrying for an area such as Tameside, which has very large local health needs. The Chancellor has attempted to justify this by allowing councils to raise extra money for social care through council tax, but this simply will not be enough. What makes this even worse is that George Osborne was warned by councils in the North of England that this would not even constitute a sticking plaster over what is needed to adequately fund social care, but he went ahead and did it anyway.
We should of course welcome the fact that even George Osborne, who is out of touch with the needs of ordinary people in areas such as ours, has finally realised just how unpopular his cuts to tax credits were. It was vital that Labour colleagues and I campaigned against the Government and got the victory on this. Lots of constituents contacted me about this, some sharing very personal stories about how much they would suffer if the cuts went ahead, so I am especially pleased that these cuts will not be going ahead yet.
Don’t be fooled however that this indicates any desire from the chancellor to see the error of his ways and scrap his wish to scrap tax credits. As the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg points out here, these cuts are simply postponed until 2020, which makes it even more necessary that we beat the Tories in five years’ time. The country, and in particular areas such as ours, cannot afford 15 years of Tory rule. I will continue to work hard to fight against the devastating cuts handed down by George Osborne and the Tories, making sure that local people are not left behind by this Government.
Sir Peter Hendy, the Chairman of Network Rail has issued the report into its future projects.
It is welcome that this report confirms that Transpennine electrification will definitely go ahead, something I have actively campaigned for ever since the scheme was put on pause by the Government earlier this year. This is a victory for local rail users who regularly use Stalybridge station for commuting in and out Manchester. However there is still real disappointment felt by passengers that the original deadline will not be met, which the Government and Network Rail have to take responsibility for.
Lilian Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, responding to the Hendy Report has said:
“Ministers are cynically trying to hide bad news by publishing this report late on the day of the Comprehensive Spending Review. It’s an insult to taxpayers that incompetent planning has created a £2.5 billion budget black hole that will be funded by £1.8 billion of asset sales, along with £700 million of additional borrowing. Labour and the Transport Select Committee repeatedly warned the Government that its rail electrification programme was in jeopardy, but Ministers refused to address the issue until after the election. We now know that electrification costs have risen by over 70 per cent, and after already announced delays to ‘Northern Powerhouse’ projects of up to four years, other important projects will also be delivered late. Ministers could have got a grip on these issues much earlier, and passengers and taxpayers are paying the price.”
A copy of the Hendy Review can be found here.
The despicable attacks in Paris last week were a telling reminder of the threat we face from terrorism, and of the need to take all steps necessary to ensure the safety and security of the United Kingdom. The unprecedented show of solidarity with France across the world is a sign of the resolve and determination that we will need every inch of if we are to prevail against Daesh (ISIS).
Understandably, the prospect of UK military intervention in Syria has again been raised by the Prime Minister. We do not yet know what he will propose and of course I will listen to any case he makes, but to date I have been sceptical of the Government's position. In 2013, MPs were asked to approve airstrikes against the Assad regime and in support of his opponents. The House of Commons refused to do so, on the grounds that the outcome would have been similar to that in Libya – the collapse of the state – but with much more bloodshed and the prospect of Assad’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of the jihadis fighting to depose him.
Now we will be asked to support the use of air power on the opposite side in the Syrian civil war – against Daesh. This feels like a step in the right direction. However, there is vital question that must be answered: who will supply the credible ground forces without which airstrikes cannot be decisive? Government Ministers frequently state it isn’t logical to refuse to bomb Daesh in Syria when we are bombing them in Iraq, but the answer to this is straightforward: in Iraq we have allies on the ground, in the form of the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. In Syria no such allies currently exist, unless we are to find common cause with the Assad forces we were seeking to bomb just two years ago, and who have murdered and displaced by far the greatest number of Syrian civilians.
A credible ground force is the only way to drive Daesh from Syria. This will require the agreement of both Russia and the current Syrian Government, and in all likelihood this force will have to remain for several years to stabilise the country. For this reason, and to prevent a further cycle of violence and recrimination against so-called ‘infidel’ occupying forces, I believe this force needs to drawn from regional states.
Such a multi-national force can be assembled – but it will require a coalition with the regional powers who are willing and able to mount the required military effort on the ground. Bombing on its own will not be effective, no matter how appalled we are by the atrocities of our enemies.
If such a strategy to win is presented, it could command my support and my vote. But if not, I would oppose airstrikes on the basis they would not help us defeat Daesh. I therefore await the proposals the Prime Minister has indicated he will bring forward in the next few weeks.
Photo credit: Freedom House (Creative Commons license)