Monday’s decision by Jeremy Corbyn to allow a free vote for Labour MPs on the Tories’ proposal to bomb Syria was clearly not the position he preferred Labour to be in. He had earlier been reported as wanting the vote whipped, and his own opposition to bombing is unquestioned.
Moreover his position is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Labour Party and, it appears, Labour MPs – although that will not be confirmed until the actual vote. A poll of party members, in which over 100,000 participated, showed 75% oppose bombing, and only 13% were actively in favour.
With such support why did Corbyn have to concede on an unwhipped vote?
Firstly his position was undermined by vocal support for a ‘free vote’ from within the ranks of his own supporters. Among the Shadow Cabinet only Diane Abbott waged a principled and clear campaign for the imposition of a whip against war, in line with Labour Party conference policy and the clear position of the Leader.
Secondly, apparently Corbyn was faced with the threat of mass resignations from the shadow cabinet led by Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, who supports the Tories’ position on bombing. This would have been the launch pad for a total assault on Corbyn’s leadership, where the confusion from his own side would have aided the right.
The arguments for a ‘free vote’ – that war should be a matter of ‘conscience’ – make no sense at all. War may be a matter of conscience for a committed pacifist, but for everyone else, while war should be a last resort, supporting it or not is a judgement about whether the war is justified, legal and whether it will achieve the ends for which it is claimed to be necessary. For a major political party to leave it to each individual MP to decide on war is entirely ridiculous.
However, given the scale of the campaign for a ‘free vote’ and the divisions in his own camp, it was probably inevitable that Corbyn had to concede on the issue. But this is a significant blow to his authority and leadership, which the right will seek to press home.
Decisive in this will be what actually happens in the vote itself on Wednesday – and then the outcome of the Oldham by-election on Thursday.
The tide is clearly running against Cameron’s case for war, despite the boost he has been given by Labour’s decision. His fallacious claim that there are 70,000 moderate troops ready to take on ISIS has been widely discredited in the media. A knee-jerk response to the Paris attacks of random bombing, without a strategy for what would replace ISIS, is losing traction.
If, as some reports suggest, only 50 or so Labour MPs vote with the Tories then the Shadow Cabinet – and the Shadow Foreign Secretary in particular – would be out-of-step with not just the Labour Party membership, its conference position, the views of Labour’s democratically elected leader but also with the majority of the PLP.
Moreover, given the views in the Party, MPs who vote with the Tories on this are likely to find their constituency membership making their lives very uncomfortable, including a push for their deselection when the time comes.
However, the key priority for the time left before the vote is that everything possible should be done to lobby Labour MPs to oppose the bombing. This will both stop the right’s temporary defeat of Corbyn turning into a rout and prevent the right’s desire to strike blows at Corbyn becoming the means by which Britain is led into another dangerous and damaging illegal war.