Vote for war if you want to, says Corbyn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has decided to allow his MPs to vote freely on military action in Syria. Is this highly unusual decision refreshingly democratic or dangerously undisciplined?

‘We didn’t spend a lot of time bothering. There were some people for whom it was not worth the effort, and he was one of them.’

As Labour’s chief whip from 2006 to 2007, Jacqui Smith negotiated with parliamentarians and told them how to vote. But in the case of the MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, she judged her task impossible.

While Labour was in government, from 1997 to 2010, Corbyn defied the whips’ instructions 428 times. He once told an interviewer he only rebelled on three issues: war and peace, socio-economic policy and matters of liberty.

Labour’s leader now faces the dissent of colleagues who disagree with him and yesterday, he took an unprecedented decision. He granted a free vote on the government’s proposal to launch air strikes against Islamic State in Syria. Dozens of MPs and even several members of the shadow cabinet — Corbyn’s top team — are now likely to vote against him on a matter of national security tomorrow.

His decision came amid bitter divisions within his party. Corbyn said last week: ‘I do not believe the Prime Minister today made a convincing case that extending UK bombing to Syria would strengthen our national security’. Labour says around 75% of its members agree with him.

But at a shadow cabinet meeting last week, just three of the 31 people present openly took his side. Hilary Benn, Corbyn’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, has called the case for action ‘compelling’. Reports at the weekend suggested Corbyn might face mass resignations and that over 100 of his 230 MPs could vote against him.

Whips have been a feature of parliamentary life since at least the 18th century. Those who defy them have often faced difficulties in gaining ministerial office or being reselected for their seats. But in recent years their power has seemed to wane. The 2010-15 parliament was the most rebellious since the Second World War. Corbyn has already faced another significant rebellion, when 21 MPs abstained from a vote on fiscal policy.

Whipping up a storm

Some would be glad to see the back of the whip system. It is anti-democratic and juvenile. It treats MPs as naughty children who cannot make up their own minds and silences dissenting voices. The public votes for representatives, not robots to follow instructions. Corbyn’s decision is brave, and should set a precedent.

That is a recipe for chaos, respond others. Lawmakers cannot run the country on an ad hoc basis. Most people vote for parties, rather than MPs, and the leadership of those parties has a duty to present the public with a coherent set of policies. Voters have a right to know whether Labour would take Britain to war or not. This shabby compromise denies them that knowledge.

You Decide

  1. Would you prefer to vote for someone who thought for themselves or followed their party’s line?
  2. Was Corbyn right to allow his MPs a free vote?

Activities

  1. Draw a cartoon symbolising the decision which Corbyn has made.
  2. Write a letter from a party whip who is trying to convince their MPs to vote as the leader requires on Syria. What would you ask them to do, and how would you persuade them?

Some People Say...

“We should get rid of political parties altogether.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this just a boring fuss about process?
The division within the Labour Party has led to a lot of focus on the way decisions have been made, taking some attention away from the decisions themselves. But they are related. If Corbyn had insisted on a ‘three-line whip’ — in other words, told MPs how they must vote — it would have been much more likely that David Cameron’s plan to take military action in Syria would have been defeated. Now, it seems a lot more likely that the bombing will take place.
Should this change how I vote when I’m 18?
It may have an impact: you may only want to vote for an MP who makes their own mind up, so you can then judge them by their own decisions. But if you prefer voting based on a party’s policies as a whole, you may find Corbyn’s approach too chaotic.

Word Watch

Unprecedented decision
Free votes are fairly common, but have usually been confined to ‘matters of conscience’ — for example, the parties allowed a free vote on the gay marriage bill in 2013.
Corbyn said
Corbyn made his position clear in a letter to Labour MPs last Thursday. He also wrote: ‘In my view, the prime minister has been unable to explain the contribution of additional UK bombing to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, or its likely impact on the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK.’
18th century
Parliamentary records suggest that the first use of the term ‘whipper-in’ was in 1772. But there are examples of it being used earlier, including by the famous conservative thinker Edmund Burke in 1769 and by the aristocratic Finch family in 1742.
2010-15 parliament
Academics at the University of Nottingham found that government backbenchers defied the whip in 35% of divisions in this parliament. This easily beat the previous post-war record of 28%. The most prolific rebel was Tory MP Philip Hollobone, who voted against the government 237 times.

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