Is Labour working through its policy differences on bombing Syria or is the shadow cabinet genuinely split? The New Politics dictates that public debate and consultations should be encouraged, so the Corbynites don’t see a problem with the current situation. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, tweeted this morning to ask everyone to ‘calm down’ because Labour is going through the process of deciding its position on Syria:
On Syria, can everyone calm down.We're all simply working through the issues & coming to final decision.Don't mistake democracy for division
— John McDonnell MP (@johnmcdonnellMP) November 27, 2015
Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary and another key Corbyn ally, has told Coffee House that any talk of a free vote on bombing Syria is premature because the position is undecided:
‘I think that talk about a free vote is putting the cart before the horse. First we all have to study what David Cameron has said and decide whether he has made the case for bombing. In my view he has not, in particular in relation to the danger of British troops being sucked into a ground war in Syria.
‘But secondly we all have to go back to our constituencies and listen to what party members and the wider community are saying. Then on Monday the shadow cabinet comes back together and we have a substantive discussion. Only then will the leader, in consultation with the whips office, decide on the whipping.’
But Hilary Benn, who is emerging as the figurehead for Labour MPs who are inclined to back the government’s proposals, told the Today programme that a free vote ‘may be where we end up’. Other members of the shadow cabinet have warned there will be a ‘bloodbath’ if there is not a free vote on Syria, given that a significant number of ministers disagree with Corbyn’s view.
Although it’s a noble idea of having a big and open debate on a crucial matter for Labour, it does give the impression that the party is in a mess over Syria. It’s also unlikely to stem the tide of stories over the next few days that the party is hopelessly split and frontbenchers will quit if they are not allowed to vote against their leader.
But the biggest problem for for Corbyn is not that he has, surprise, surprise, decided he can’t support military intervention, but that many frontbenchers feel there is a basic lack of respect from the Labour leadership — for example, Benn wasn’t shown the speech Corbyn would make in the Commons even though he is the Shadow Foreign Secretary, and the shadow cabinet weren’t told that Corbyn would write to MPs saying he would oppose strikes. Denying frontbenchers a free vote would reinforce that impression that he isn’t really that bothered about listening to them.