The last two weeks in politics have been some of the most challenging, exhausting, interesting and important that I have experienced as an MP.
The challenging bit started with the Scottish referendum. I have been going to Scotland on and off for a while and like others was becoming increasingly distressed as the referendum approached that the Yes campaign was becoming more visible and voluble in its activities. I dislike the SNP politics of division and profoundly believe that the UK is better staying together, especially in these uncertain times globally. I feel that the North East in particular has much in common with its Scottish neighbours. Scottish culture adds to the great diversity of the UK and is something to be cherished by all of us. I found the whole separatist, we will go it alone, put up the borders ideology of the nationalists deeply disturbing. Whilst I am really pleased (and immensely relieved) that the No campaign I worked so hard for won, I do feel that the politics of separatism and division have not been challenged enough.
One good thing to emerge from the result, however, is that greater devolution for England is now higher on the political agenda. I deeply hope that Labour’s commitment to greater devolution for our regions, through structures that already exist and a constitutional convention, are the ideas that win out in the end, rather than that of an English Parliament which again I think is a retreat into the politics of separateness.
My overriding view on Scotland is that we (and particularly the Labour Party) must do more to work on what we have in common. This means learning from each other, seeking greater prosperity throughout the United Kingdom and talking about how we all jointly influence Britain’s role in the world. We genuinely need to promote solidarity between our nations and challenge those who emphasise what divides rather than unites us. Lastly we need to ensure that in debates in the future those opposing the nationalist cause are not subject to intimidation and where everyone can speak without being shouted down, threatened or silenced. I guess it means giving that silent majority a voice.
Labour Party Conference:
The exhausting and interesting bit came from the Labour Party conference. I spoke at a large number of fringes on the planning system, garden cities, housing for disabled people, planning for the needs of older people, improving the quality of the built environment and much more. Highlights of the conference for me can be summed up in four speeches.
Hilary Benn was simply superb highlighting the need for greater devolution of powers to local authorities and highlighting the dreadful impact of cuts to local authority services in poor communities. He also loudly re-stated to thunderous applause our policy to repeal the bedroom tax.
Second was the speech given by Ed Miliband. He may have left out a sentence or two but it was a great speech to listen to. Full of detailed policy objectives on jobs, housing, the environment, training and apprenticeships, the NHS and public services and Britain’s role in the world too. You can read his speech here: http://press.labour.org.uk/post/98234398144/speech-by-ed-miliband-to-labours-annual-conference.
Third was the 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith, who gave an immensely personal view of the importance of the NHS to people’s lives and how we must do everything we can to save health care free at the point of use for future generations. He was wonderful and made me think that the conference would benefit from having more people like him speak.
Finally was the immensely powerful speech by Andy Burnham on the NHS and social care. He said a great deal about protecting the NHS and integrating health and social care to get the NHS back to a system that cares for people – reiterating Ed Miliband’s pledge to increase staffing numbers in the NHS substantially.
Unlike the view of the conference portrayed on television I did not find delegates subdued. Rather I thought people were thoughtful and engaged – aware of the huge difficulties that would face a future Labour government but keen to discuss what we could do with the opportunities too.
Vote on military action:
And then to the extremely important vote in Parliament today on whether the UK should provide limited military aid to support the Iraqi government.
I took a strong stand against the Iraq war in 2003 and I knew I would find this vote difficult. In the end I agreed to support the action as I think the situation is very different now to that which existed in 2003.
Ed Miliband summarised the key points to be considered very well by setting out 6 tests that should be met for military action to be legitimate;
- That is has just cause- I hope we would all agree that supporting a democratically elected government against an ISIS threat and seeking to prevent further acts of barbarism from ISIS is a just cause.
- That it is a last resort- I believe that this condition is met as it is not at all possible to negotiate with ISIS.
- It should be legal- the vote today comes as a result of the fact that assistance is being sought from the government of Iraq. As such, we would be responding to the request of a democratic state fighting for its own survival, a legitimate justification for intervention as recognised in the UN Charter. It is worth noting that there may in addition be separate humanitarian grounds for supporting the action.
- It should have a reasonable prospect of success- this is the hardest test, but a number of speakers in the Commons debate made clear the aim of the intervention. It is to reinforce the democratic government of Iraq and prevent the advance of ISIL by using international military air power while the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga conduct a ground campaign against ISIL. This will be difficult, but there is already evidence that the US action is having the effect of holding back ISIL and preventing further killings.
- It must have regional support- a number of countries in the region and beyond are backing Iraq.
- It must be proportionate- the motion being debated today (see below) is for limited action only.
I have evaluated the tests that have been set for this action by the UN and others and am convinced that the need to assist the Iraqi forces against ISIS is a compelling one.
Like many people I have been horrified by the appalling activities of ISIS that have been appearing on our television screens and feel that we must do what we can to limit their ability to afflict pain and suffering on others. Their ideology is a perversion of Islam and must be challenged at every level.
So whilst I support military action against ISIS I also think that much more needs to be done nationally and internationally to address the radicalisation of young people and others, and their conversion to the jihadi cause. In the UK and elsewhere this will mean addressing the circumstances that lead to terrorism and the infliction of such violence on others.
Some people who have written to me suggest the West or even the Iraqi War is responsible for this radicalisation but I think that is too simplistic. The radicalisation was there long before that and ISIS is just the latest in a long list of terrorist organisations using Islam for its ends. Rather we must seek through education and dialogue a means for promoting peace, mutual respect and equal opportunity for our fellow human beings.
In the end we all know as parliamentarians that the solution to the threat of ISIS will be a political one that will need to emanate from inclusive democratic governments in the Middle East and beyond. Work on this as a political objective must never cease. As Ban Ki Moon said at the meeting of the UN Security Council this week, “over the long term, the biggest threat to terrorists is not the power of missiles- it is the politics of inclusion.”
But for the reasons that I have outlined above, in the meantime I think military action that could contain or reduce the capacity for ISIS to carry out barbaric activities against Muslims, Christians and others should be supported.