Labour’s bitter internal row over whether to vote for airstrikes against Isis in Syria deepened on Saturday as MPs in favour of military action accused Jeremy Corbyn of trying to bypass his shadow cabinet by appealing to grassroots supporters for their views.
Senior members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – many of whom are in favour of military action – were among those outraged by what they saw as attempts by their leader to go behind their backs without consultation, before a parliamentary vote, expected on Wednesday.
On Saturday, as some senior Labour MPs were mounting a counter-offensive aimed at ensuring that the case for airstrikes was fully heard, it emerged that MPs have gone out of their way to ensure that a key meeting of the parliamentary Labour party on Monday evening will be addressed by shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn – who believes the case for backing airstrikes is now “compelling” – as well as Corbyn.
There was particular anger within the shadow cabinet when they learned that Corbyn had sent an email to party members – without informing his most senior colleagues in the party, including Benn – in which he said he did “not believe that the prime minister made a convincing case that British airstrikes on Syria would strengthen our national security or reduce the threat from Isis”. The Labour leader then asked members to give their view on whether they thought parliament should “vote to authorise the bombing of Syria”.
One shadow cabinet source complained the Corbyn email did not reflect the genuine debate in the party and also said it was not a military campaign against Syria but against Isis targets in Syria. Others said the email seemed to have been aimed mainly at members who had joined the party since the general election, a large proportion of whom did so to back Corbyn for leader.
“We all thought that the plan was that MPs go away and think about everything over the weekend,” said the source. “Then the leader goes behind everyone’s backs. He has not got the support of his shadow cabinet so he looks for it from those who backed him for leader. To talk about ‘bombing Syria’ is outrageous. It is the language of Stop the War.”
John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley in the West Midlands and a critic of Corbyn, said: “If Tony Blair had behaved like this on such an important matter – trying to bypass the parliamentary party – Jeremy Corbyn and his like would have been the first to scream blue murder.”
Another senior Labour MP said he and colleagues were convinced that the leader’s office had leaked details of lists compiled by party whips that showed which MPs were in favour of military action, to the anti-war grass roots movement Momentum, so that its supporters could apply pressure on MPs in their constituencies.
The pro-Corbyn activist Jon Lansman, who set up Momentum and who has said in the past that MPs should back the leader or risk deselection, told the Observer: “MPs would have to have very good reasons to go against the party policy on Syria that was decided at party conference. Any decision to go to war is a serious one and should not be taken lightly.”
At the conference Labour delegates backed a motion saying that military action in Syria should not be supported until four conditions had been met: authorisation from the United Nations; a comprehensive plan for humanitarian assistance for any refugees who may be displaced by the action; assurances that the bombing is directed exclusively at military targets associated with Isis; and the subordination of military action to international diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria. Momentum takes the view that none of these conditions has been met.
Its supporters have been out in force on social media warning Labour MPs to back Corbyn or face the consequences. After former paratrooper Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, made a speech on Thursday quoting former party Labour leader John Smith on wanting an opportunity to serve the country, Momentum in Bromsgrove tweeted “you will get #John Smith’s ‘opportunity to serve’ as long as you back JC #DontBombSyria”.
There was also concern among MPs at suggestions that Corbyn might be planning to refer the issue of what policy the party adopts on Syria to Labour’s ruling body, the national executive committee, on which Corbyn supporters have a majority. During a discussion on Saturday on LBC radio, Ken Livingstone, former London mayor and supporter of Corbyn, said the decision was “a case for Labour’s national executive, which is the body that oversees the party, not the parliamentary Labour party”.
The MPs said the NEC’s job was to run the party’s administration, not to rule on policy, which was for the parliamentary party and shadow cabinet.
With the party deeply split, most shadow cabinet members believe Corbyn will have to allow his MPs a free vote on Syria. A decision is expected to be made at a meeting of the shadow cabinet on Monday, which will be followed by what is certain to be a heated gathering of the entire parliamentary party.
VOICES FOR ACTION
The Guardian: Natalie Nougayrède
Now is the time for Europe’s strategic awakening – because that’s the only way it will have any chance of influencing events and not crumbling beneath them.
The Daily Telegraph: Janet Daley
The old enmities and suspicions – between the west and Russia, Turkey and the Kurds – are going to have to be put aside in the name of one unified, relentless effort to stamp out an epidemic of murderous lunacy.
AND VOICES AGAINST
The Daily Telegraph: Editorial
Provided this fight is about defeating Isil, not regime change, Britain should play a full part with its allies in a clearly defined campaign to destroy this menace.
The Financial Times: Editorial
As Mr Cameron has said, if the UK does not stand with France at this moment, its allies could be forgiven for asking: “If not now, when?”
The Times: Matthew Parris
Britain will join the bombing because it’s the kind of thing Britain does. It will make no serious difference to the allied campaign, and the whole thing will end up in a bloody mess.
The Guardian: Jürgen Todenhöfer, German politician and author who spent some time with Isis
A bombing strategy employed by France – which, potentially, will now be joined by Britain – will above all hit Syria’s population. This will fill Isis fighters with joy.
The Daily Mail: Editorial
It sickens the Mail to find ourselves in the same camp as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell … But on balance, and with many misgivings, this paper believes the case for bombing Syria has not yet been made.
The Daily Mail: Max Hastings
The extinction of IS is devoutly to be wished for, but nobody, including the prime minister, should speak as if that will be the end of Muslim terrorism in the west.