UK Labour leadership race: Should the Middle East care?

The candidates: Top row (L-R) Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, bottom row (L-R) Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall

On Sept. 12, Britain’s Labour Party will announce its new leader. Whoever wins could hold sway over British policy-making domestically and abroad, given the Conservative Party’s slim majority.

Labour suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in May, after which Ed Miliband announced his intention to stand down as leader with immediate effect.

It is well documented that the backbenchers sitting behind Prime Minister David Cameron have in no way guaranteed their full support to their leader.

As such, a united opposition in Britain’s parliament could prove problematic for Cameron as he tries to get approval for policies.

However, critics say there is little sign of unity in the Labour Party, and that could ultimately ease Cameron’s efforts to push through policies.

Should any of this matter to the people of the Middle East? Should they even care? Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, thinks they should.

Effective opposition

“The future of the Labour Party and whether it’s an effective opposition on all issues, including foreign policy, is crucial,” he told Al Arabiya News.

“Any British government needs an effective opposition. If the Labour Party is completely disunited and in disarray, it will be very difficult to hold the government to account.”

He said Cameron was “upping the rhetoric” on issues such as migrants, and Libya was likely to feature on the agenda, with the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“All of these are issues that mean that we do need a debate on foreign policy and British politics,” Doyle added.

In Aug. 2013, President Barack Obama asked Cameron to join the United States in running air raids over Syria after a sarin attack on the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus.

The attack, carried out by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, killed at least 1,300 people.

Cameron conceded defeat when parliament voted 285-272 against joining Washington in taking action against the Assad regime. The vote was a clear case of opposition taking a stand and holding the government to account.

Would the same happen now? “It’s always necessary that whoever is in opposition is effective,” said Doyle.

“A weak opposition allows a government to get away with poor legislation and poor policy decisions.”

Cameron recently indicated that he intends to revisit the Syria question - this time targeting ISIS. A unified Labour Party could sway the vote either way, depending on the views of its leader.

Labour candidates

Labour members have until Sept. 10 to vote for a new leader. The choice is between four candidates: Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn.

The four represent a wide spectrum of political views within the party, from Kendell on the right - who initially received the backing of MPs who served in Tony Blair’s government - all the way to Corbyn on the left, who is senior in Britain’s Stop the War Coalition that opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Corbyn has already said he opposes any form of military intervention in the Middle East. He “has a long record of being against wars, against military intervention,” Doyle said.

“He represents a view that’s increasingly shared by a lot of people in Britain: that we shouldn’t have got ourselves involved in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”

Doyle added: “Some of the other candidates have quite a different view. I’m not quite sure whether they all agree on intervention, but it’s still a debate, and that debate isn’t really being had as to when should Britain join a military intervention, under what circumstances, and how such matters should be conducted.”

Many fear that if Corbyn wins, it will lead to the demise of Labour and the loss of the general election in five years.

Blair, who led the country into Iraq and Afghanistan, recently wrote in British daily The Guardian that Labour faced “annihilation” if Corbyn won the leadership election.

Blair wrote: “Please understand the danger we are in. The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below.”

Middle East journalist Eyad Abu Shakra told Al Arabiya News that in 2013, “Labour was against fighting Syria, and Cameron was half-hearted about his decision.”

Abu Shakra added: “Labour is a respectable opposition. I think if Corbyn wins, Labour will turn out to be a protest faction. So far, Labour is the alternative party of power. It’s very important that Labour remains an electable power.”

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Last Update: 10:56 KSA 13:56 - GMT 10:56
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