After Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, the assumption was that he would offer his MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis in Syria. The divisions within the party over the issue and Corbyn’s rebellious past 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 party conference in September, the Labour leader refused to dismiss the possibility. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and his closest ally, went further and backed a free vote.
But on Monday, Corbyn signalled that he did not intend to hold one (“I don’t think a free vote is something that we are offering”), a position that he reaffirmed yesterday: “We would have to consider it as a party, consider it as a group and decide how we would react at that point, I can’t predict at this stage.”
The Labour leader’s stance is now being publicly challenged by MPs, such as Chuka Umunna and Emma Reynolds, and privately challenged by shadow cabinet ministers. One backbencher told me that Corbyn’s refusal to hold a free vote was “an attempt to pick a fight, isolate colleagues and pave the way for deselection”.
At present, Labour’s position is that it will wait to see the government’s proposal and whether a United Nations resolution can be agreed. But many in the party believe that even were UN endorsement secured, Corbyn would not back air strikes. The Labour leader said yesterday: “I’m not convinced that bombing would actually solve anything. We could end up with more civilian casualties and with an even worse situation in Syria.” MPs argue, however, that it would be essential for him to offer a free vote if UN approval is achieved.
It’s worth noting two points in response. The first is that, as has not been highlighted yet, Corbyn supported the principle of free votes on military action in 2013. He said in a speech on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war: “On something so fundamental as the deployment of armed forces, a free vote is the right thing to do. Many have said it is easy to send other people’s sons and daughters off to die and then hide behind a veneer of party loyalty, but the issue is much bigger than that.”
The second is that, if Corbyn does not hold a free vote on Syria, it will be harder for him to justify one on the divisive issue of Trident. Those shadow cabinet members, such as Michael Dugher, who argue that Labour should vote in line with its current policy of supporting renewal will have their hand strengthened.
Update: Former shadow minister Jamie Reed has written to Jeremy Corbyn demanding a free vote on Syria. The letter, sent to all Labour MPs, can be read in full below.
After a difficult week for our party, please find below a letter to the Leader of the Labour Party which requests a free vote on any proposed intervention in Syria, in addition to other requests. Please also find attached a link to my article published today which outlines the relevant issues in more detail.
Thank you for the letter you sent to President Hollande this week in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris committed by the fascists of Daesh. In particular, you were right to express our solidarity with the French people and to pledge to support every effort to bring to justice the perpetrators of these despicable acts.
In the face of this international crisis, our party has again conspired to occupy the national news headlines this week with a series of damaging and self-inflicted stories. This cannot continue.
A series of measures are now required in order to ensure the unity of the PLP and to repair the damage inflicted to the Party in recent weeks, but this week in particular.
Any vote on Syria should be a free vote
Clearly, any proposals brought forward by the government need to be considered, without prejudice and in forensic detail. It is not sensible to insist upon a whipped vote in the knowledge that such a move will likely mean that a significant number of colleagues will break the whip as a matter of conscience. Matters such as this – as your own voting record shows – will always be subject to individual conscience irrespective of the party whip. In short, a whipped vote with regard to any potential British involvement in Syria looks like a deliberate and calculated attempt to engineer a damaging and avoidable conflict within the PLP.
You should condemn the Stop the War Coalition and make it explicitly clear that it will have no role in the formation of Labour Party policy.
The actions of the Stop the War Coalition in the wake of the atrocities in Paris were reprehensible. The assertion from the group that those murdered in Paris had ‘reaped the whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in the Middle East’ was as sickening as it was inaccurate. As a former Chair of the group you should publicly condemn the Stop the War Coalition for its offensive behavior, you should withdraw from its widely advertised Christmas event and you should make it explicitly clear that at no point and in no way will this group be allowed to contribute towards or within any Labour Party policy process at any level.
The last week has shown that any association between the Labour Party and the Stop the War Coalition can only bring shame and humiliation to our Party. The principal loyalty of any Labour leader must be to the Labour Party ahead of any other organisation.
These requests do not represent a personal attack. Moreover, they are an illustration of the obvious actions now required of you. The assurances given to President Hollande should be met in thought and deed. Solidarity with the people of France must endure for longer than a single news cycle.