New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
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. 

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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.

Content from our partners
The future of private credit
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce