Ed Miliband has indicated that a resolution must be brought before the UN security council in New York before the party would support British involvement in air strikes against (Isis) forces.
Amid signs that to discuss possible British involvement in the campaign, the Labour leader on Tuesday voiced support for the overnight strikes on Isis targets in Syria by the US and a series of allies as he insisted that his party would never turn its back on internationalism.
Miliband opened his speech to the conference in Manchester – his last before the general election – by saying that the Isis video of Alan Henning, the charity volunteer from nearby Salford, highlighted the “murderous ways” of the jihadis.
But the Labour leader made clear that the UN security council, which is due to meet on Wednesday under the chairmanship of Barack Obama, should consider a resolution. He said: “This week the president of the US and the British prime minister are both at the UN. We support the overnight action against Isil [Isis]. What needs to happen now is that the UN needs to play its part – a UN security council resolution to win the international support to counter that threat of Isil. This country will never turn our back on the world and will never turn our back on the principles of internationalism.”
Miliband did not specify what the resolution should say. Labour sources also said that the party was not demanding that a resolution would have to be passed as a precondition to supporting military action.
Obama is understood to be planning to limit any action by the security council to agreeing binding commitments on stemming the flow of money to Isis. Britain and the US are understood to believe that a resolution authorising military action could be vetoed by Russia.
The Labour thinking is crucial in Downing Street’s calculations because David Cameron, who is in New York, believes it would be politically impossible for him to join military air strikes without the support of Labour. Ed Miliband’s intervention during an emergency recall of parliament last year helped to stop air strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in .
Labour sources stressed that their key demand was for a resolution to be placed before the security council and not necessarily for a vote to be held. There had been suggestions that UK involvement in air strikes on Isis forces in Iraq would be legal if the Baghdad government invited Britain and other countries to join the strikes.
The sources also said that a self-defence clause, which could be invoked by the Iraqi government saying that its security was threatened by Iraqi forces in Syria, could be used as a legal basis for the UK to join the strikes in Syria.
Shadow foreign secretary had said: “ISIL [Isis] represent a threat not just to regional security in the Middle East but to international security. So we understand and support the action taken by the United States and Arab allies in recent hours.
“Both the prime minister and the president are due in the United Nations this week so we are now urging a resolution should now be brought to the security council of the .”
Labour’s remarks were echoed in part by Downing Street which said it supported the overnight strikes in Syria. A spokesman said the prime minister would be assessing during his trip to New York what further help Britain can provide.
The No 10 spokesman said: “The PM will be holding talks at the United Nations in New York over the next two days on what more the UK and others can do to contribute to international efforts to tackle the threat we all face from Isil.
“The UK is already offering significant military support, including supplying arms to the Kurds as well as surveillance operations by a squadron of Tornadoes and other RAF aircraft.”
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said the military strikes against Isis were taking place amid a different backdrop from the proposed strikes against the Assad regime last year because a multinational coalition was involved.
Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, said the situation with Isis was different from the situation in Syria last year when the party opposed strikes against the Assad regime after a chemical weapons strike in a Damascus suburb. He said the party would apply the same principles that it applied a year ago. Labour sources stressed that these principles were used when the party supported military action in Libya.
Umunna told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “A request for support hasn’t been put in yet, as far as I understand. If it was we would apply the same criteria to judge what position we adopt in relation to any proposed action as that we applied last year in respect of the proposed intervention in Syria.
“The three principle criteria are: what is the basis in international law for intervention? Second, what is the plan of action in respect of any action? And, thirdly, what is the plan for what happens after, of course learning the lessons of Iraq.”
But Umunna spoke of how the circumstances were different this time. “I do think the public draw a distinction between the [Isis] situation and what was being proposed in Syria last year. I think the public is in a different place on the Isis issue.”
He added: “[Isis] need to be eliminated. They are an evil organisation. What we have seen them doing – beheading people, persecuting the Yazidis – is absolutely inexcusable and we have not seen a group engage on this scale in such an organised manner for some time.”
Meanwhile, the mood on the Labour benches was generally supportive of air strikes on Iraq, in contrast to the revolt over military action in Syria last year, but there was still opposition in some sections of the party.
Diane Abbott, one of Miliband’s former shadow ministers, said she was “not comfortable” with air strikes on Iraq and said there was a “danger of getting sucked into a political quagmire with no exit strategy”.
She told the Guardian: “I realise that public opinion is more favourable than over Syria. But I do not believe that we should become the air arm of a dysfunctional Iraqi government. [There is] no British military solution for the political problems in Iraq.”
John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, also made it clear he opposed the idea, saying he would not vote for air strikes.