When Britain’s political leaders stand at the Cenotaph in two months time, I wonder what ‘never again’ will mean to them. Last year the ceremony was conducted against the backdrop of a desperately deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Syria and a parliamentary vote which the previous year had rejected Britain sending military assistance to fight ISIS and Assad. This year it will be conducted against the backdrop of the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen in 60 years and Britain’s continued failure to give meaningful help, both in the region and now here at home. Syrian refugees accepted into Britain in the last year? 216, and counting (slowly).
David Cameron said yesterday that the ‘migrant crisis will not be solved by Britain taking more refugees.’ He said (rightly) that what is needed is peace and stability in the region, but the idea that those words are a conscionable alternative to helping the men, women and children literally washing up on Europe’s shores as we speak is just so very wrong. We all want peace and stability in Syria, and across the Middle East but this is (at best) a long term plan, not an answer to the urgent, immediate suffering of people today. Refugees need help, they need it right now, and they need it here.
But David Cameron is the Prime Minister, the decisions are his. The left can ‘demand’ Cameron acts, but we can’t actually make him listen. Ironically, some of the most powerful voices for ramping up our efforts to take in refugees right now are likely to be those in the Tory Party who will call on Cameron to act. Marches and demonstrations led by sworn Tory haters can be ignored by the government. They never had the support of these people, they never will, they don’t need them, and they don’t care. We are facing a grotesque global humanitarian crisis and we are now feeling it right here in Europe. This is surely a time for national unity – standing together, as many as possible from the left, right and middle – to ask our government to act. And this throws into stark focus the importance of having a Labour opposition which really understands this about democratic politics.
For a lot of people politics is about expressing themselves, challenging through words the wrongs of the world, and this is absolutely healthy and essential for democracy. For others – and I am thinking here about those who choose to pursue change through parliamentary politics – politics has to be first and foremost about deeds. It is about doing what is needed to gain access to the levers of power so they can do what is right. They need to persuade a broad enough coalition of people to support them, and that very often means precisely not saying everything they think all the time. Right now Labour needs leaders who recognise that to change the tide of opinion on accepting refugees you have to win over people whom the conservative government looks to for support, not alienate them and condemn them. Further still, we need Labour leaders who can convince these people not just to lobby the Conservative Party they voted for to accept more refugees, but to change their vote next time to Labour so we can do so much more.
Like those who had to make decisions back in the 1940s our political leaders are faced with era defining choices. Labour’s choices are era-defining too. Deeds not words. Can anyone still, deep down in their hearts, look at pictures of dead children washed up on the beaches of our holiday resorts, while our Prime Minister says we will not be accepting any more refugees, and believe that achieving power is not as important as building a left-wing “social movement”? Politics isn’t a game. This matters, so much.