Whenever Labour has been divided, foreign policy has been a defining faultine. In 1935, pacifist leader George Lansbury was forced to resign over his opposition to rearmament and to sanctions against fascist Italy (the Transport and General Workers’ Union leader and future foreign secretary Ernest Bevin accusing him of “hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”). In 1981, Michael Foot’s support for withdrawal from the European Economic Community triggered the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic Party. In 2003, 139 Labour MPs voted against the invasion of Iraq, a decision which still haunts the party. In 2006, it was Tony Blair’s support for Israel’s Lebanon assault which forced him to pre-announce his resignation.
Today, it is foreign and defence policy which once again divides a Labour leader and his MPs. While unity can be found on economic and social issues, the differences in these areas are unbridgeable. Corbyn is a lifelong supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament and has said he cannot currently think of “any circumstances” in which he would favour the deployment of armed forces. With no less fervour, others are resolutely committed to the renewal of Trident and to military action against Isis, stances which they argue stand in the best Labour traditions.
Corbyn’s aides emphasised last night that the majority of shadow cabinet members (17:11) and of MPs (152:66) voted against air strikes in Syria. But 66 supported them, including figures as senior as Tom Watson, Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and Maria Eagle. It was the warning of mass frontbench resignations that led Corbyn to conclude that he could not whip his party against military action.
Yesterday’s debate only intensified the divide. For weeks, the tensions between Corbyn and Benn had been growing. At the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting on Monday, the shadow foreign secretary declared “We are an internationalist party” before gesturing towards the leader and adding: “It can be argued that it is all too difficult. But that will not stand us in good stead with the British people when they look to us for leadership.” On Tuesday, Benn’s aide issued a sharp rebuke after Corbyn publicly warned his shadow foreign secretary: “We’re going to kill people in their homes by our bombs”. “Inaction has a cost in a lives, too,” the spokesman replied. For weeks, MPs had been hailing Benn’s performances at the PLP, with some describing him as a potential future leader. Last night, the rest of the world found out why. Benn’s remarkable oration, in which he hailed Labour’s internationalist and anti-fascist traditions, drew thunderous and spontaneous applause from his side. Jim Dowd, Liz Kendall and several shadow cabinet members were moved to tears.
But Benn’s unhesitant support for air strikes has revulsed others. Shortly after the debate began, Dennis Skinner was heard to call him “Ramsay McBenn”, a reference to the loathed Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, who was expelled from the party in 1931 for forming a National Government with the Conservatives. John McDonnell’s comparison of Benn’s speech to Tony Blair’s address before the Iraq war was regarded as another hostile act.
Some of the 66 Labour MPs who voted for air strikes will become the target of deselection attempts (with Stella Creasy already under threat). This morning, Ken Livingstone, the co-chair of the party’s defence review and a member of the NEC, declared: “If I had an MP who voted to bomb Syria, then I would be prepared to support someone challenging” (comments described as “disgraceful” by Andy Burnham). Corbyn stated shortly after becoming leader that he would not support the deselection of any MP but as he acknowledged earlier this week it is not in his power to prevent such moves: “It is not up to me to decide who are or not Labour candidates in the future, but in any selection, reselection, deselection or in any kind of selection is at least three years away because there has got to be a boundary review first.” Some believe that Corbyn’s pre-vote warning that there was “no hiding place” for those who supported air strikes was designed precisely to encourage the removal of MPs.
Labour’s internal warfare over Syria has cost it members on both sides. Some have resigned in disgust at Corbyn’s failure to impose a whip, while others have left in protest at the treatment of MPs. The danger for the leader, as I write in my column this week, is that he ends up alienating all sides and pleasing none.
Increasingly, Corbyn faces a choice between cooperation with his MPs or confrontation. He can pre-emptively concede free votes on other divisive issues such as the renewal of Trident and genuinely respect differences of opinion. Or he can use members’ ballots to try to change party policy, appoint a more robustly left-wing shadow cabinet (described by one Corbynite shadow minister as “inevitable”) and tolerate or even endorse attempts to deselect critical MPs. As Labour’s civil war intensifies, the path he chooses will define its future.
Now listen to George Eaton discussing the vote on air strikes, among other subjects, with Caroline Crampton and Stephen Bush, in this week’s New Statesman podcast…