Last Sunday, Labour MP Jo Cox, the former head of policy at Oxfam, co-wrote a piece for the Observer with Conservative MP, Andrew Mitchell, arguing that British forces could help achieve an ethical solution in Syria. They lay out a threefold plan placing civilians at the heart of a British response to the humanitarian crisis which includes a role for military intervention in Syria. The article, and Cox’s subsequent speech in Parliament, were brave considering she is an MP in a party which has just elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, who recently made a splash when he said he would struggle to see circumstances in which he would agree to deploy British forces. As Cox and Mitchell argue, “There is nothing ethical about standing to one side when civilians are being murdered and maimed.”
Cox’s article provoked ire from Dianne Abbot, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, who went on Twitter to say it was “sad” that Labour MPs want to “support Cameron in his long held desire to bomb Syria.”
— Diane Abbott MP (@HackneyAbbott) October 11, 2015
Abbot, who was later accused of internet trolling by a fellow Labour MP, penned her own piece on Monday arguing that “British military intervention in Syria will solve nothing.” In it, she claims it is “entirely disingenuous to argue for military action alongside a diplomatic and humanitarian action, as if they are inextricably linked.” Abbot’s culminating argument, that Labour shouldn’t support any form of military action without a new UN Security Council resolution, is incidentally the same position argued for by Conservative MP, Tobias Ellwood, in his response to Cox during the parliamentary debate.
But can Syria’s innocent civilians really wait for international consensus? In Left Foot Forward, a left-leaning political blog, Clara Connolly, an immigration and human rights lawyer, and an activist in Syria Solidarity Movement UK, challenged “the lethal danger of Labour MPs reliance on yet another drawn-out UN process while time is running out for Syrians.” Cox and Mitchell conclude that the international community’s response through the UN has been “woefully inadequate.” This is why they argue not only for a diplomatic and humanitarian response—but for a military response based on offering security and protection to the innocent, one not necessarily limited to acting with the endorsement of the UN. The international community’s response over the last few years has been “a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy,” as Cox wrote in a follow-up piece for Labour List.
In the post-Blair era, the spectre of Iraq hangs heavily over the Labour party. Cox, an adamant opponent of the Iraq war, who marched against it, recognises the reticence of some of her parliamentary colleagues when it comes to military intervention. In her speech to parliament, she said this reticence “comes from perhaps the darkest chapter in Labour’s history, when we led this country to war in Iraq. Many Members in all parts of the House have been scarred by that experience, and understandably so; but let us all be clear about the fact that Syria is not Iraq.” Cox draws on Labour’s internationalist tradition to build her case for intervention, and points to the thousands of volunteers from the Labour movement who went to Spain to stand with the anti-fascists. She also called upon the memory of Robin Cook, famous for resigning from the Blair cabinet over Iraq, who “demanded action to stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and elsewhere, in the face of outrageous intransigence from the then Conservative Government.” Labour should take pride, according to Cox, “in the action we led in government to save countless lives in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.”
Significantly, it appears that rather than leading to further entrenched divisions in the Parliamentary Labour Party, as the Guardian suggested, Cox has managed to win influence with her front bench colleagues, and push her party in a new direction. Following Cox’s parliamentary speech, rather than supporting Abbot’s no-compromise approach, Corbyn signalled that Labour could back military action in Syria without UN support. But will Corbyn, who once signed a Parliamentary motion critical of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, which likewise claimed “‘genocide’ never really existed” there, find a way to square his own values with the principled intervention called for by Cox and Mitchell? One hopes, because the people of Syria, now more than ever, need our solidarity. “Every decade or so,” Cox said in her opening to Parliament, “the world is tested by a crisis so grave that it breaks the mould: one so horrific and inhumane that the response of politicians to it becomes emblematic of their generation —their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us.”