With less than two weeks until polling day, it’s nice to see that Ed Miliband has discovered foreign policy as an important issue worth discussing. The Labour leader will attack the Tories today on a failure of post-conflict planning for Libya which has contributed to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
The Conservatives have decided to get very cross about this, claiming that the overnight briefing on this included Labour spinners saying the Tory party was responsible for the deaths. They have decided to make this about Miliband’s fitness to be Prime Minister. Liz Truss called his speech ‘absolutely offensive’, ‘outrageous and disgraceful’, and said ‘Ed Miliband feels like he’s losing the argument and he’s lashing out and accusing the Prime Minister, essentially, of causing deaths, rather than addressing the issues in this campaign’.
This is the pre-briefed line from Miliband’s speech on Libya:
‘In Libya, Labour supported military action to avoid the slaughter Qaddafi threatened in Benghazi. But since the action, the failure of post conflict planning has become obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own.
‘What we have seen in Libya is that when tensions over power and resource began to emerge, they simply reinforced deep seated ideological and ethnic fault lines in the country, meaning the hopes of the revolutionary uprisings quickly began to unravel. The tragedy is that this could have been anticipated. It should have been avoided. And Britain could have played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing behind the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle.’
There might have been some enthusiastic over-egging from a spinner in addition to this, or there might not have been. But it’s pretty difficult to argue with this critique. Indeed, it’s one the Spectator has consistently made since the Libyan conflict. Our magazine has been worried and unimpressed by the way the Conservative-led government has approached foreign policy and defence in general – and particularly with regards to Libya (we recently ran a leading article on it, too – and Fraser wrote about it in his Telegraph column a year ago). Consider this piece by Mary Wakefield from March 2014, which described Libya as a ‘heartbreaking mess’:
‘So what now, oh allies? What does a humanitarian interventionist do when the humans he intervened to help begin to look worse off than they did before? I think at the very least he has a duty to look the situation in the face; to understand and accept the consequences of his war. My fear is that Cameron’s pique over his good guys turning bad will mean he tries not to think about it, mimics Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq and says, ‘Stuff happens.’ It’s not my fault. Move on.
‘But a reluctance to accept responsibility now is a corollary of a deeper problem: a reluctance to plan properly in the first place. I was against our intervention in Libya, not because I thought Gaddafi was a decent leader, but because even pals of Cameron said there’d be no thinking through the different possible outcomes.
‘And so much of what’s gone wrong seems predictable. Gaddafi was paranoid, and had no proper police and no real army save his personal guard. So who did we think was going to support a new government? It’s easy to be smart in hindsight, so let’s look forward: rival militias coalesce into regional war lords, which means corruption. And what then? Well, it’s in just this kind of environment that groups like al-Qa’eda thrive — offering an exhausted people security in exchange for sharia law.
‘On 18 March 2011, three years ago next Tuesday, David Cameron stood in the Commons and argued passionately for UN resolution 1973, which would impose a no fly zone in Libya. There are three tests, and it’s passed them all, he said: we must demonstrate need, we must ensure regional support and we must show that there’s a clear legal basis.
‘Next time, let’s add a fourth requirement before we go to war: that the government demonstrate that they’ve thought through the consequences as well.’
What the Tories can’t say, because it would involve some public examination of their own record, is that Labour has been hopeless at scrutinising the government on foreign policy. It has barely talked about it in this parliament, save for departmental questions where shadow Foreign Office ministers must ask Foreign Office ministers about foreign affairs. Some Labour supporters have found two questions about Libya, one from Douglas Alexander, and another from Dan Jarvis, who has never held a foreign affairs brief but is just sensible and actually understands these things, as a former soldier. I could find you two questions from the Labour party on bees, bins or indeed bananas – but two questions do not a concerted opposition attack make. The party has offered very little in the way of speeches, debates using the time allocated to it, or PMQ attacks that focus on foreign policy, let alone specifically on the issue of post-conflict planning in Libya.
Sure, Labour is not the government, but it is Her Majesty’s Opposition, with a constitutional role to scrutinise what the government is doing and to pick apart its poor planning and silly decisions. That tends to happen outside of elections, not in the last two weeks of a campaign when some opportunistic strategist thinks there’s a weakness to be exploited.
It was almost surprising to read that Miliband thinks what he does about ‘the failure of post-conflict planning’ being obvious. He hasn’t made it obvious up to this point.
Update: 11.10am – Labour has kindly sent out a briefing on all the times Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander have talked about Libya. It rather proves the above point, which is that save for the months surrounding the intervention, the party has barely talked about it. After Ed Miliband talked about long-term support for the Libyan government on 5 September 2011, his own party can’t seem to find any mention of post-conflict planning by its own leadership in 2012, 2013, or 2014. Not until 2015 did the Labour leader raise the issue again, saying:
It was right to take action to protect civilians and prevent a massacre in Benghazi in 2011. Tragically, though, Libya now looks more and more like a failed state. Is the Prime Minister satisfied by the post-conflict planning and work that has been done? Does he agree that for stability to be restored in Libya, the UN-led process towards establishing a transitional Government must be followed? If so, what further steps does he believe the UK and its allies can take to support that approach?