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Above all, Labour should refuse bipartisan support for Tories on Libya (UPDATED)

Libya posed a real dilemma for Labour and the Left. On one hand, we want to support the Libyan revolution, to offer any possible protection to the civilian population and are bound therefore to be sympathetic to much if not all of the UN Security Council resolution, as Darrell Goodliffe argued here. On the other, with the on-going disastrous Western presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are keen not to embark on a third disaster, and, as Owen Jones argues, there were many good reasons to keep out. The speed with which the Arab League’s support seems to have evaporated (especially in light of its importance to the UN resolution) adds significantly to the case for the opposition.

This dilemma has understandably led the Left to adopt a variety of positions from outright opposition to western intervention to qualified support with “no illusions”. However, even for those who offer support for a no-fly zone, and qualified support for Western action which claims to be in furtherance of the UN resolution, there are many causes for concern. Foremost is the lack of direct accountability to the UN by the western forces. If this operation has legitimacy, legal, moral or political, it is because of the UN resolution. However, the US and Britain governments have clearly demonstrated that they can’t be trusted with the interpretation of UN resolutions. All military actions carried out in the name of the UN resolution must be subject to the scrutiny of the Security Council, not only to ensure that they are properly sanctioned, but to monitor the consequences of that action.

For the Labour Opposition in Britain, even if it decides to back the Government’s action thus far (which would have little legitimacy without a vote in the PLP), this means giving no uniquivocal guarantees of support for the future. The role of parliament should be to keep the operation under review, to ensure that it continues to comply with the UN resolution, that Libyan citizens are protected rather than imperilled by that action, and that it contunes to receive support within Libya and the region – if indeed those conditions are satisfied even now.

The may well be widespread support within the PLP for that position. The grave doubts of people like Tom Watson (in spite of the headline of his blog) mean that this is a position on which a broad measure of unity is possible.

Labour should also pour scorn on the hypocrisy of Western leaders (including our own) and Arab despots alike: Cameron trading arms to despots with a brief stop at Cairo’s Tahrir square to feign support for democratic revolution; Clinton’s desperation to prop up client dictators whilst they connive with each other in their oppression of their own people. Within Labour, we must resist the desperation to exploit the plight of Libyan rebels to justify renewing the doctrine of so-called “liberal interventionism,” in spite of Ed Miliband’s desire to distance Labour from the Iraq debacle.

Labour must voice support for the remarkable awakening of democratic revolution across the whole of the Arab world, in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia. And the fear that defeat in Libya will not only see terrible bloodshed there but also snuff out the tide of revolution. Even in Egypt, the revolution remains fragile, as was evident in the divisions surrounding this weekend’s referendum (on which see also these observations).

Defeat for the Arab Spring could now turn out to be a consequence of Western intervention — that is what we must work to avoid. Even for those of us who are totally opposed to western intervention, it is more important to build a broad alliance of those who are merely fearful of the consequences in order to hold those intervening to account.


Since writing this piece, there has been an emergency PLP in which the mood was sombre and, on the whole, respectful of the views expressed – many of which expressed great caution about what happens next, the risks and the dangers, and about the need to hold the government to account.

It is true that those Labour MPs who have so far spoken out most against western intervention in Libya, such as Jeremy Corbyn, were not present — although Corbyn has just asked the Prime Minister a most pertinent question about the falling-away of support by China, the Arab League and others, and the Chinese request for a further Security Council meeting.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that so many were focussed on the risks and the dangers, and on the government’s accountability. Even Jim Murray says:

We will be supportive but will also ask the serious questions that the country would expect the Opposition to be posing.


  1. Mike Phipps says:

    Saying “All military actions carried out in the name of the UN resolution must be subject to the scrutiny of the Security Council” neglects the point that the Security Council is largely a US plaything. We saw this clearly with non-permanent members of the Council being offered financial inducements to fall into line at time of the abortive attempt to seek a second UN resolution over Iraq.
    The General Assembly of the UN hasa bit more democratic legitimacy but it is unlikely they will be consulted.

    PLP support for whatever Labour decides is a very secondary consideration if Labour decides to support war crimes. The nature of aerial bombardment means that it is only a matter of time before significant civilian fatalities are inflicted by the humanitarian interventionists – Afghanistan shows that daily, where a ratio of 40 civilians killed for every Al-Qaeda supporter is said by the US Administration to be an acceptable figure.

    1. Jon Lansman says:


      I don’t doubt the influence of the US and the methods it is prepared to use to exercise it, but the Security Council isn’t quite a US plaything – 5 countries abstained – Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany – and even some that supported the resolution would not necessarily agree with the US or British interpretation. So, for example, the withdrawal of the Arab League’s support could lead to a shift in the alliances. As to the “legitimacy” of the General Council versus Security Council, the rules of the UN do seem to me to count for something, and not only in law.

      PLP endorsement for Labour’s action may not be sufficient to confer legitimacy either (any more than was the UN backing for the US position in Korea) but it is necessary.

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