December 1, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
The first to say about tomorrow’s vote on airstrikes in Syria is that it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about Politics. A vote for air strikes by Labour MPs is NOT ‘voting with the Tories’, it is because an MP has been convinced by the case for effectively entering a war. A vote against airstrikes by Tory MPs is not ‘voting with Labour’ but because that MP has not been convinced by the case for effectively entering a war. The decision to take military action is the gravest decision our representatives have to make, and it appears they won’t be making it lightly.
So we have a situation where, after a rancorous meeting of the Shadow Cabinet and then the Parliamentary Labour Party yesterday (Monday), Jeremy Corbyn announced that there would be a free vote of their MPs. Well, actually, within five minutes of the Shadow Cabinet meeting starting his office announced that this was the decision, adding that official Labour Party policy was against the airstrikes.
As members of the Shadow Cabinet got this news through on their mobiles, they had to point out to Corbyn in the meeting that official party policy couldn’t be changed without going through a proper process, using the party conference (which had actually set the policy, including tests to pass for military action, which many believe have already been passed).
The second point was made by Andy Burnham, who is against the airstrikes, which was that changing this policy on the hoof meant that any Labour MP who voted against it would be “thrown to the wolves”. It would give further ammunition to pro-Corbyn campaigners from Momentum to deselect those MPs.
It got to the point where Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, offered to speak from the back benches in favour of airstrikes. He is now instead going to sit next to Corbyn and make a speech in favour after Corbyn has made a speech against.
So, what is going to happen tomorrow in the debate on Syria is unprecedented in the history of our Parliamentary democracy. The opposition party is going to go into that debate without a ‘party line’, with all MPs allowed to choose with their conscience. What this means is that many members of the parliamentary Labour Party will be voting against the views of their leader and the view of the majority of members of their own political party.
For remember, Jeremy Corbyn was very, very open about his opposition to any type of military action in the Summer. He went as far as admitting he cannot see a circumstance where military action can be helpful. 59% of all Labour Party members heard this and voted for him. He cannot go back on it, not only because it is a central principle of his beliefs but because he doesn’t have a mandate to.
Now those people, led by the pro-Corbyn Momentum movement, are making clear that MPs should respect the democratic will of party members, and either vote with Corbyn or, particularly if in the Shadow Cabinet, stand aside.
Fundamentally, this is about what kind of representative democracy the UK is. Are MPs merely the ‘voice’ of electors, their delegates, or should they be using their best judgement to represent their constituents whilst balancing this against the national interests.
Edmund Burke, the political philosopher and Conservative MP, said to his new Bristol constituents in 1774 that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Labour MPs aren’t even having to worry about their constituents, they are now being told that they should be delegates for the views of Labour Party members, not even the wider electorate who voted them into their position.
In tomorrow’s debate, which, although it is supposed to be one day (Corbyn has asked for two), could go on through the night, David Cameron has vowed to answer every question he is given. He has tried to remain as principled as possible on this issue.
You could argue that Jeremy Corbyn, too, has tried to remain as principled as possible too. But the people around him are far less bothered about principle, and seem to be letting him down greatly. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy being a Labour MP right now.
But let’s not forget that this is about dropping bombs and sending people into a foreign country who could die. It’s far more serious than internal party politics.