Comment: Hilary Benn showed us what Labour is missing

The shadow foreign secretary showed yesterday what an effective, coherent opposition should look like


I have been a member of the Labour Party for fifteen years and never have I witnessed anything like yesterday.

MPs had a grave decision to make – to support military action against ISIL in Syria or not.

The debate started on a poor note. The prime minister failed to give a clear explanation of his figure that 70,000 moderate Syrians were ready to provide the boots on the ground needed to back up air strikes.

His decision not to apologise for his remarks that those opposed to military action were somehow ‘terrorist sympathisers’ was also an error of judgement that diminished the standing of the office that David Cameron holds.

Then came Jeremy Corbyn – head down in his notes, he simply faced a barrage of noise from the Conservative MPs, failing to answer head on his views about the air strikes currently taking place in Iraq against ISIL, strikes undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government itself.

The new, honest politics obviously did not extend to answering a straight question with a straight answer. The sight of deputy leader Tom Watson with his head in his hands said it all.

But then came Hilary Benn. Since agreeing to serve under Jeremy Corbyn Benn has been placed in a difficult, if not impossible position. He was forced to clear up the mess created by Corbyn’s failure to provide leadership on the UK’s place in the EU, and over Syria he has been propelled to play the statesman role that the leader of the official opposition is incapable of doing.

Benn’s speech last night was well and truly electrifying. The passion, the energy and the clarity that he brought to the argument was the kind of speech that neither Cameron nor Corbyn could deliver. It was a speech of a prime minister in waiting.

Jeremy Corbyn sat stony faced throughout, not even able to muster a ‘well done’ on the delivery of a great speech to his shadow foreign secretary.

The Labour Party now faces a crunch moment that it has to confront head on. Yes, Labour members voted overwhelming for Jeremy Corbyn to lead the party but sometimes reality has to hit us.

Jeremy Corbyn is not a prime minister in waiting. His poll ratings are tanking further (if that were possible) among those voters who ultimately decide who governs the country.

His inability to present a united front on crucial security issues would pose severe difficulties of the UK’s position in the world if he were, by some fluke, ever to make it to Downing Street.

But worst of all has been his attitude to his parliamentary colleagues. Yes, he called for an atmosphere of tolerance as MP after MP has faced abuse for supporting military intervention in Syria, but it was he that sent Labour MPs to face the wolves last weekend, leaving them to stew. It was shameful.

Members of the parliamentary Labour Party and the country as a whole know the truth. For all his admirable qualities and principles, Jeremy Corbyn cannot and will not win a General Election. Hilary Benn showed yesterday what an effective, coherent opposition should look like.

Air strikes over Syria are now being undertaken in defence of democracy. In the UK our democracy is in peril thanks to the absence of a credible opposition to hold the government to account.

The Labour Party cannot go on like this. Something, and more specifically someone, needs to change and change now.

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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127 Responses to “Comment: Hilary Benn showed us what Labour is missing”

  1. Sued By Red Teddy

    Leader’s speech, Blackpool 2001

    Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative)

    Location: Blackpool

    Commentary:This was Duncan Smith’s first speech as leader. Four weeks before he delivered this address, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked America, killing thousands of people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These attacks, and their wider implications, were the focus of Duncan Smith’s speech. He also criticised the government’s record on public services and pledged to raise standards in health and education, improve economic stability, and oppose the European single currency.

    Four weeks ago 28 short days, men whose hearts were shrouded in hate and whose minds were in the grip of a twisted ideology, drove three aircraft into three buildings. The result: 7,000 human beings are dead – Catholics and Protestants, Hindus, Muslims and Jews – they have all found a unity in death, and their death has united us all. Families across the world now mourn. We mourn with them. What can it be like to have watched the unfolding tragedy and then go home to find your husband saying farewell on the answer-phone? What words can adequately describe the selfless determination of those who went to save lives or to comfort the victims and ended up as victims themselves? We say to the families whose tragedy we witnessed, we do not pretend to know the depths of your despair, but your nobility helps us in our determination to act.

    Our hearts, our thoughts and our prayers are with you wherever you are. The men responsible for the outrages in America must pay for their evil. So we stand in full support of our American friends in this war against terrorism. This is not about revenge – it is about justice, it is about doing what is right. This war against terrorism is our war. The cold, callous and merciless attacks in America were the work of terrorists who knew no moral limits. They have struck before, they will strike again – we are right to strike at them. We cannot secure peace by standing aside from war. We cannot end danger by putting safety before our friends. We cannot conquer fear, by fearing to act ourselves.


    The terrorists who attacked America also have us in their sights. Not because of what we in Britain have done, but because of what we and America stand for. Britain and the United States have become the enemy because we are beacons of democracy and champions of freedom. We are homes to people of all faiths and none. We are countries in which every individual can find fulfilment in their own way. For bin Laden and his fanatics, the very nature of liberal democracy is an affront.

    NATO and America

    When civilisation is attacked, civilised nations must spring to each other’s defence. That is why NATO remains the cornerstone of our security. I don’t know about you, but I felt reassured when NATO backed this action. Invoking collective security is the most powerful statement a friend and ally can make. But it takes more than words. It requires means and the political will to use them. NATO has both, that is what has made it so effective over more than half a century. Nothing must be done to undermine its purpose or diminish its capability. And that is what is so dangerous about the plan for a European Army.

    We must never allow political ambitions to stand in the way of our national defence. International coalitions have their place and international approval is useful too. But our mission should shape the coalition, not the other way around. Diplomacy must be for a purpose and our purpose is to dismantle the apparatus of terror.

    There are those who say we must not give America blank cheques, that we must speak to them as candid friends, that we must position ourselves to limit, to cavil and to carp. I have to ask what jaundiced view of America animates such people. The response of President Bush and the American people to a grievous assault has been dignified, restrained and measured. Who are these people to patronise a great nation in its grief?

    Middle East

    Perhaps, some people say, a changed approach to a troubled region or a review of American foreign policy would deflect the terrorists’ wrath. I have to ask them if they truly appreciate the nature of the threat we face. Two years ago, the terrorists responsible for the atrocities in America were planning their massacres. At that time, hopes for a settlement in the Middle East were high. And America was the sponsor of that process.

    The terrorists did not target a policy, but a people. Their quarrel is not with the course set by a democracy, but with democracy itself. They are fanatics who view compromise and negotiation as weakness. They are an enemy against whom we must deploy all our reserves of strength. They are the enemy we must defeat.

    Armed Forces

    That’s why the moral, political and financial support we give our armed forces is so vital. Let us pause to remember that as we meet here the men and women of our armed forces, across the world, are now risking their lives. They do it, as they always do, with unparalleled professionalism, courage and distinction. We owe our armed forces a debt we can never repay. But there is one thing we can do. We can show a clarity, a direction and a singleness of purpose which will not diminish over time.

    My father’s generation risked their lives so that we could grow up in freedom. Sixty years ago, a close friend of my fathers summed up their attitude like this: ‘I shall go to war believing I am fighting against oppression and devilry, but I expect I shall die because we should never have tolerated the ineptitude of gutless politicians for so long.’ Thirty four years later, as a nervous, worried soldier on patrol in Northern Ireland, I looked up and I saw a poster calling for an end to violence. It read ‘Seven years is enough.’

    Two generations, the same lesson: that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Successive generations of terrorists have believed that the resolve of the West to act is weak. No matter what the atrocity, the West will lose interest, its resolve will fade and they can get on with planning the next outrage. We must show the terrorists they are wrong.

    Cold war

    The illusion that the fall of the Berlin Wall ended threats to our way of life can no longer be sustained. We must accept that we still live in a dangerous world, and wishing won’t make it otherwise. On September 11th we received a wakeup call. It showed the depravity and the wicked intent of bin Laden and those who would follow in his path.

    There are those who say that because they struck with passenger jets loaded with fuel, it is pointless to defend ourselves against weapons yet more lethal. But who now can doubt that if these terrorists had the means they would use nuclear, biological or chemical weapons? Against such weapons we are all but defenceless. And against such people, fanatics without fear or reason, we must defend ourselves at every level. For the threat can come in many forms: the suicide bomber, the terrorist network armed with Sarin gas or anthrax, the rogue state with its ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. That is why I have called for the strengthening of our home defences. That’s why I have urged support for US plans to build a missile defence shield that would protect us too. New threats require new thinking. We must never again be unprepared.


    Bin Laden’s terrorists sought to draw Islam into fundamental conflict with the non-Islamic world. They must not be allowed to succeed. Muslim nations Jordan, Central Asian states, Gulf states, Saudi Arabia – even Pakistan, which stands on the very edge of the conflict – have rallied round the cause of defeating terrorism. The security of their world is at stake as well as ours. These governments have shown great courage and we must stand by our proven friends. So let me say again, the enemy is not Islam. It never has been. We will defend religious freedom as vigorously as the other freedoms we hold dear. We do this because that is what we stand for as a nation. Bin Laden claims to speak for Islam, but he cannot. His is a cynical and suicidal cult dedicated to the destruction of civilisations and lives, irrespective of their faith. This is a man who sends young acolytes to die for his own pathological purpose, while he himself skulks in caves. This is a man who prefers martyrdom at a distance.

    Human rights

    We must hold on to our respect for civil liberties – it is, after all, what marks out our open society from the tyranny of the men of violence. But in many areas of our life, we shall also have to find a new balance between human rights and human safety. The Human Rights Act passed two years ago is proving an obstacle to protecting the lives of British citizens. When we cannot deport those who threaten the life of a British Prime Minister and promote terrorism from the safety of our own country; when we cannot refuse entry to terrorist suspects on the grounds of national security; when we cannot even extradite people accused of violence against America to the United States – then it is time to change the law.

    Terrorism and crime

    Protecting our nation means we must understand the links between international terrorism and organised crime. Drugs such as heroin and cocaine which blight the lives of so many of the young and vulnerable in our towns and cities. They are produced, distributed and smuggled into this country by terrorist networks. The Taliban buy the weapons which kill their own people with the profits from heroin which kills our own children. The Colombian terror groups fund their murderous activities with the cocaine which destroys the lives of their citizens and ours.

    Criminality sustains terror networks across the globe. Its reach is felt from the World Trade Centre to the street corners of Moss Side, Brixton and Belfast. Within our own nation, the IRA and so-called loyalist paramilitaries continue to make millions through their criminal rackets – drug running, petrol smuggling, and extortion. They inflict savage beatings, shootings and mutilations on people in their own communities. We cannot be indifferent to the suffering of those, many of them our poorest, who are the victims of these criminal gangs. We cannot afford to be neutral in the war on terror – for it threatens the security and lives of our citizens daily. We shall not rest until there is an end to terror in the United Kingdom. That means tackling the mafia sub-culture that sustains it. And it means all the arms still held by Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries being put permanently beyond use – once and for all. Otherwise there can be no place for the representatives of terrorists in the Government of Northern Ireland.

    Insecurity at home

    But it’s not just these threats that disturb our peace of mind today. Different worries, growing fast in recent years, make our society more fearful of the future. That’s true, of course, for some groups above all: farmers and fishermen with their livelihoods extinguished; road hauliers driven into bankruptcy by higher taxes; people looking forward to retirement who have seen the value of their savings tumble. And over the years there has been a strange paradox at work. As we have grown more prosperous as a nation, it sometimes seems that we have lost some of certainties that made us feel comfortable and safe in our own surroundings. Streets in our towns that we’ve known all our lives are now places that we fear. Standards of civility that were once the norm have given way to selfishness and aggression. The sight of police officers on our streets has become so rare that on many of our estates older people are afraid to venture out. Our citizens have the right to effective protection.

    Quality of life and public services

    As Conservatives we are fiercely proud of our country, but we also know that much has gone wrong. Whether it is the air we breathe, the public transport we take to work, or the countryside we live in, there is a growing sense of unease that our quality of life is diminishing. In our country, the sick cannot get the treatment they need. In many of our inner cities the young do not receive the education they deserve. I call that shaming. We are the fourth richest country on earth. We should be providing public services that match those of our European neighbours, not those of the Third World.

    Why are people less likely to survive cancer in this country than in France or Germany? Why are schools failing here when children across Europe achieve so much more? Why do I get cases in my surgery of parents feeling so trapped by the lack of discipline and standards in their local schools that some feel forced to teach their children at home? Why did my constituent, waiting a year for a heart bypass operation, turn round as he was leaving my surgery, shrug his shoulders and say: You know they’ve promised things will get better in a couple of years – problem is, I don’t think I’ve got a couple of months. No wonder the French health minister describes the British Health Service as intolerable.

    The sad fact is this: a generation ago, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Today Britain is the last place in Europe any man or woman would want to fall sick. Our European neighbours simply enjoy better hospitals and schools, because they put the needs of their people before the demands of dogma. If we are to live up to the demands of a new century, we must do the same. This is our greatest mission at home over the coming years: to assemble the coalition of charities and churches, the public and private sectors that will deliver results. We will bring an open mind to the task of reforming public services but we will also bring the best of British innovation, enterprise and energy to our task. Not for us the ideological baggage, the special favours for those who pay the political bills. For the Conservatives it is just the determination to succeed.

    We know from our own experiences that people are no longer willing to put up with public services politicians are inclined to hand out. We are long past the age when everyone was willing to queue passively for treatment in a hospital corridor the way they queued at the baker’s during the War. The gentleman in Whitehall no longer knows best, and yet Labour still act as though they know better than we do. It isn’t managers who treat illness, but doctors and nurses taking account of patients’ needs. It is not bureaucrats who will educate our children, but teachers working with parents.

    To improve health and education in this country, your first thought must be for patients and parents. But that’s not the Labour way. Their first thought is to preserve the existing system and their first instinct is to protect vested interests. There can be no progress without innovation, and no innovation without difference. Standards will rise faster in some areas than others. If you won’t allow one foot to move in front of the other, you will stay standing still. So we will examine all the models available to us from all over the world and draw on expert opinion in this country. I have instructed the Shadow Cabinet to visit other countries, to see why it is that their public services are so much better than ours. And I’ve told them to consult those who run our public services as well as those who rely on them.

    Who could fail to have been moved by what Frances Howard said yesterday? She said that discipline in our classrooms has collapsed to the point where it is almost impossible to teach. We will find ways to achieve the high standards in our schools and in our medical care which a hard-working, self-respecting country deserves.

    Economic stability

    Improvements in public services depend upon the health of our economy to pay for them. And the health of our economy depends on three factors:

    taxes low enough to allow us to attract and keep the best in a highly competitive world economy;

    regulation light enough to allow companies to innovate, recruit and grow;

    and the key levers of economic management, the tax and interest rates which allow us to absorb the shocks of the world economy, remaining in our own control.

    There is an old saying that ‘a rising tide floats all ships’. During its first term of office, the Government has relied on the rising tide of the global economy. The Chancellor has increased taxes, but, for many people, increasing income has made that less noticeable. And as the Chancellor has taxed more, he has spent more, and then more still. But it would be wrong to assume the tide always rises. Our economy is set for turbulent times ahead, and is in a weaker condition to withstand them than it was five years ago. Public spending has been allowed to run ahead of growth. Regulation has eaten away at the strength of our industries. Now more risk is being added to an already uncertain economy.

    We have been told that the course is now set for entry into the Euro. As a Party, we will oppose that. Whenever the referendum comes, we will fight to keep the Pound. And the clarity of our position means we can concentrate on the crisis in our hospitals, the failure in our schools and the crime on our streets, while others talk about a timetable for scrapping the Pound.

    As a nation we should be ready to weather difficult times together. But we must remember that our future would have been safer were it not for the hubris of believing that boom and bust had been abolished. Humility becomes us all. We will renew our policies with one aim in mind: we must deliver real solutions to real problems.

    Once before, a generation ago, we were faced with the task of turning Britain around. Then the challenges were mainly economic and industrial. In the 1980s and 1990s, we tamed the power of the unions and unleashed the latent spirit of enterprise within our nation. Time has moved on. Now we face a different set of challenges: to tackle insecurity, improve economic stability and bring first class public services to our people.

    These real problems face everyone in this country, wherever they live and wherever they come from. They confront us as parents or patients, as people who live in towns or cities or the countryside, whether we are young or old. They curb our ambitions, limit our dreams and add to our anxieties. They affect our friends and our families. They make for common concerns among complete strangers.

    As a Conservative, I am proud of what our Party has done for this country. As a British citizen, I am still prouder of what this country has done for the world. As the years go by, the mission of a Party, just like the destiny of a nation, changes. But we face change, and we lead others through change, on the foundations of values and beliefs which do not change.

    Let me give you just one instance of what I mean. And, being a politician, I’m afraid it’s drawn from my own experience. I was brought up in a family where public service wasn’t just a shorthand for the public sector: it was a way of life. Life in the Forces left an indelible imprint on my childhood, so much so that I too became a soldier. I don’t want to idealise Army life. But it was a life where loyalty, duty and honour counted. Later I went into industry and later still, for a time, I was unemployed. No one who’s endured that worry while bringing up a family can possibly forget it. Eventually, after several years in publishing, I became a Member of Parliament. That too, frankly, had its ups and downs! And, in a sense, I found I’d come full circle. Because being an MP was just an extension of that idea of public service which is such a defining feature of our nation’s life.

    We all have our own stories, our own experience’s of service. To those who ask what kind of people we actually are, I say: Go and find out who’s volunteering for the local charity. Search out the people who put their hand in their pockets for good causes, without asking for praise or courting publicity. Look out for the quiet family who are striving to make ends meet and care for a disabled or sick relative. As likely as not, you’ll discover a Conservative.

    We know that women, ethnic minorities and people of different lifestyles must have greater opportunity within our Party. And I shall do everything I can to give this effect. Not because I am interested in ensuring that the Conservative Party is politically correct, but because I want us to be politically effective. That means drawing on the widest possible pool of talent, recruiting and promoting on the basis of merit.

    And that is also why I will be intolerant of anyone who is intolerant of others. For me the essence of a Conservative is something beyond such talk of quotas and categories. At the heart of my Conservatism is a desire – one which is consuming, and unending – to serve the nation as a whole. To serve by defending our institutions and upholding our traditions. To serve by extending the benefits of a free and prosperous life to every corner of the land. To serve, above all, by making Britain a place where all our citizens feel proud to belong, a place we love, and one which we want our children and our grandchildren to love, as passionately as we do.

    Today, this country is engaged in a ferocious conflict, a struggle for civilisation itself. We should remember why we are fighting, what we believe, and who we are. Let’s keep faith with ourselves and our ideals. Let’s keep faith with freedom.

  2. Selohesra

    It was certainly an excellent speech – whether it is the right answer though I don’t know. I have no issue with the principal of bombing provided we genuinely think it will work.

  3. Ed Jones

    So Left Foot Forward has now joined the long list of corporate media and the small group of Labour Party MPs attacking Jeremy Corbyn? How very disappointing… Jeremy Corbyn has a massive mandate, bigger than Blair’s, having received 60 per cent of the vote for the leadership..I expected better from Left Foot Forward.

  4. Joe

    I think an effective coherent opposition would be Jeremy enforcing the whip last night and Benn stepping down. Jeremy has the mandate; Jeremy has the support of the labour party, Benn’s voice is actually a minority in the PLP and certainly not representative of what labour members stand for. No doubt, the speech was impassioned, but that doesn’t make it the right thing to have done. You’re telling me that when you’ve got Conservative MPs cheering a labour shadow foreign secretary, that’s effective opposition?

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