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16 November 2015

Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria shows his newly assertive approach

Against expectations, the opposition leader says shadow ministers will not be permitted to support air strikes against Isis. 

By George Eaton

Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader the assumption has been that he will offer his MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis in Syria (should the government bring one forward). The divisions within the party over the issue and Corbyn’s rebellious past (voting against the whip 534 times since 1997) meant that to many it seemed the logical option. Shadow ministers would be permitted to vote in favour of air strikes while Corbyn and others voted against. When asked about the issue at the Labour conference in September, Corbyn refused to dismiss the possibility. 

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, his closest ally, went further and said a free vote would be appropriate: “There are some big ticket issues where there are some principled disagreements. On a lot of other issues you can see consensus and compromise. Jeremy is teaching me how to reach consensus and compromise – bloody difficult I tell you. But on a number of big ticket issues the reality is we have to agree that we can’t agree.

“We haven’t come to this conclusion yet about Syria. But my view – I have been in parliament and on five occasions we have gone to war. It just focuses your mind. You get a chill down your spine when you are making a decision to send people into war where there could be a possible loss of life … When you are sending people with a potential loss of life I think it is a conscience decision, I think it is a moral decision.

“So I am hoping on the Syria thing it should be a free vote on the basis of conscience. On that big ticket issue that is the way we should go. I will try and win the argument. But I have got to recognise on this particular issue I respect people if they feel otherwise because it is such a morally challenging decision to make whether you are going to go to war and a result of that people will be maimed and there could be a loss of life.”

But interviewed by Sky News today, Corbyn said: “I don’t think a free vote is something that we are offering”. At last week’s shadow cabinet meeting, he emphasised the value of collective responsibility and implicitly rebuked shadow cabinet ministers, such as shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle, for undermining his authority by taking contradictory positions. Corbyn’s refusal to offer a free vote is the first example of his newly assertive approach. 

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His stance means it will be even harder for Cameron to secure a Commons majority for air strikes. While there are around 30 Labour backbenchers prepared to rebel against the leadership, shadow ministers would now be forced to resign in order to vote for military action. At this early stage of the parliament, as they seek to exert influence over Corbyn, few will want to do so.