3 December 2015

Can rhetorical excellence be inherited? PART I

Ed Jacobs (Left Foot Forward):

Hilary Benn showed us what Labour is missing


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
(Part II will include Hilary Benn's speech in full).