So, the end of August signals that politics’ silly season has come to a close. It must be said however; silly season 2013 hasn’t been the usual frivolous affair which we have come to expect. Indeed, the egging of Ed Miliband will be seen by many as the amusing highlight, and even that didn’t have the pantomime of John Prescott’s yolked episode. Instead, throughout August both domestic affairs, and even more so international, have both absorbed and alarmed us.
The focal point of our attention has been on Syria, where President Assad’s dogged struggle not to be consumed by the liberating tide of democracy has seen the nation devastated once again. Reports during late August suggested that Assad had, for a second time, used chemical weapons against civilians in an attack in Damascus. US estimates have placed the number dead at well over 1,000, and we have seen the horrifying effects of the attack pictured by news stations across the globe. The attack came a year after Barack Obama had infamously warned the Syrian government that the use of chemical weapons would signal a ‘red line’ being crossed in the conflict.
Since the attack, an intense international debate has ensued as to the guilt of Assad, and the potential actions foreign nation-states should take. As such, last week we saw Parliament recalled to debate the issue, the outcome being a vote of 285-272 against UK military intervention at this time. Firstly, in discussing the issue, it must be said that the procedure was a great success for parliamentary democracy. Although you may dispute the outcome, a passionate debate in a packed chamber was a refreshing sight, and one which I for one would like to see more often. One cannot also help but feel that this vote was a watershed moment certainly for UK foreign policy, but possibly Western foreign policy generally. Indeed, our decision not to rush into Syria was based on principles very different to those we saw in Iraq, with many MPs calling for definitive evidence before the UK takes any sort of military action. Furthermore, the debate also highlighted the need for legal backing of intervention from the UN, and a more multilateral agreement being negotiated before planes are sent to tear across Syria’s airspace. Subsequently, one feels that the US has been influenced by Parliament’s procedures and outcome, with Barack Obama calling for Congress to approve any intervention from the US before it is taken. Although from initial evidence it seems that Congress will not share our same respect for caution in this instance.
Syria hasn’t been the only state which has seen devastation over the past month however. Indeed, on August 14th in Cairo, camps containing protestors loyal to ousted President Mohammed Morsi were violently broken up by the Egyptian military, resulting in the deaths of at least 638 people. Moreover, undeterred protestors have since clashed with the intermediary government forces, resulting in many more fatalities and casualties. The actions of the Egyptian military have been internationally condemned, although the US has decided not to cut its $1.3 billion aid budget. Despite some calls for foreign intervention, official British reaction has also been watchful, with Foreign Secretary William Hague expressing that a limited amount can be done by the West, although he did acknowledge the calls of his Labour counterpart Douglas Alexander for a robust and joint response from the EU, including a review of aid. It seems as though any hopes for a swift and peaceful return to democracy in Egypt have ended, with the situation looking increasingly unstable.
Moving onto domestic political affairs, and accusations which emerged during August of an apparent excessive enjoyment of the early summer break- specifically by Labour Shadow Cabinet members. It was suggested- initially by Labour peer John Prescott, in a nauseating comparison to football management, and by Shadow Health Minister Andy Burnham- that Labour did not take full opportunity of the summer period to make their case to the electorate. Subsequently, much criticism has been levied against Labour leader Ed Miliband and the assumed lack of direction he has given Labour Cabinet United.
In analysing these suggestions seriously, it is first worth noting that the Conservatives were not exactly working at fever pitch to promote their message during the summer break either, indeed it could well be argued that they were as sedate as Labour. The criticism is therefore more symptomatic of Labour’s time in opposition as a whole. The problem for Labour is that Miliband and his cabinet have allowed the Conservatives to set the terms of political debate throughout their time in office so far. Take immigration; the Conservatives’ policy is fairly basic- immigration was too high under Labour, therefore we will continue to take measures to reduce it (despite contrary evidence of recent figures). This plays on suggestions that immigration is bad, that immigrants take our jobs, steal our benefits, and disrupt our ‘British’ way of life. Now, unless I also have been enjoying too much of the sun, I have not seen a consistent challenge of these terms by Mr Miliband. I have not seen him suggest that immigration is not the root cause of all evil in the UK; that rather frustration with immigration is more symptomatic of issues regarding stagnant low pay and high unemployment within the working classes, issues that will be tackled by Labour if they return to power in 2015. Labour’s rhetoric is ineffectual, and their messages aren’t sticking in the ears of the nation. The Conservatives are picking and choosing the terms by which they fight the key issues, from immigration to welfare to the economy. What is displeasing certain individuals is that Labour did not make any significant effort to reverse this policy of declamatory dormancy during silly season 2013.
It seems perverse to say it, but the Labour Party needs more nauseating catchphrases, catchphrases which underpin their message and discredit the Tories. A prime example of a comparable one used by Cameron and Co. is ‘Making Work Pay’, a catchphrase which I suggest could be manipulated by Labour to manufacture their own terms for the economic debate. Essentially, Labour must argue that the Conservatives’ strategy of ‘Making Work Pay’- by cutting benefits- detracts from the economic stock of the nation, is an irresponsible plan while imposing austerity measures which resulted in the highest unemployment in 17 years, and therefore ignores a key ingredient- Making Work. A Labour repost could consequently come in the form of an economic promise and budding catchphrase to ‘Make Work, and Make Wages Pay’. Labour’s economic attack has consistently centred around economic growth, and, as eluded to by Liam Byrne, Labour will strive to create full employment if elected in 2015. Furthermore, through an endorsement of a living wage, Labour could show how the economic rewards of work would outweigh benefits. During an election race where variances in economic policy are likely to be hazy at best, rhetoric such as this will be vital for Labour to get their economic message across.
Moving away from domestic affairs and onto our Article of the Month for August, and I have decided to give this, our twelfth award, to Marc Winsland and his article ‘The Poignancy of Words’. A fitting exaltation of one of 20th-century America’s defining speeches, this article paid tribute to Martin Luther King’s famous Washington speech with spine-tingling prose. An exceptional article dedicated to the memory of one of Western history’s defining figures. Furthermore, I wish to mention another momentous article published on Backbench during the past month- our first debate article. Entitled ‘Obama- The Verdict so far’, this article saw Backbench Commentators Rory Claydon and Marc Winsland posit their contrary opinions as to the success of President Obama’s five years in office. The piece showed the range of perspectives which can be held over the same issue, even from within the same political standpoint, and provided readers with a great balance of opinion. Hopefully there will be many more debate articles to come over subsequent months.
Similarly, there have been other causes to celebrate during August. On August 30th Backbench celebrated its first birthday. Over the past twelve months we have seen the conception and evolution of the site, a rapid process which I less than anyone would have expected. We have seen over 110 writers join the site, from a wide range of social backgrounds and political persuasions, with approximately 300,000 critical and systematically composed words written collectively. Page views per month now number in the tens of thousands. But figures do not tell the whole story- as usual. The Backbench project has brought together a community of passionate individuals who want to change the world for the better, and, through the platform, have been given an initial opportunity to do so. This community has been formed through the free, accessible nature of both comment and readership, features which encapsulate the pivotal advances of our modern technological age.
However, I do not want the future to consist of all of our stakeholders lamenting that “Backbench was great while it lasted.” Therefore, I do not want my overriding message to be one of starry-eyed sentimentality; I want to assure you that under my watch Backbench will continue along the same path- this is not a short-term project. The site can become one of the most innovative and liberating forces in UK politics if it receives the right time and support. I will give it the time; it is up to you to continue to give it the support you have so far.