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Hilary Benn on Labour’s Syria split: ‘People of principle can reach different decisions’

1 December 2015

9:00 AM

1 December 2015

9:00 AM

Tomorrow, Labour will try out something curious during the Commons debate on airstrikes in Syria. The opposition side of the debate will be opened by Jeremy Corbyn, who will argue against airstrikes, and later closed by Hilary Benn, who will make the case for them. This may sound all very dynamic and different but there is a simple and important question ordinary folks will be wondering: what is Labour’s policy on Syrian airstrikes?

On the Today programme, the shadow foreign secretary said he is in favour of the strikes because ‘there is a clear and present threat from Isil Daesh’ and called for respect from the opposing sides within Labour – possibly in response to Corbynite MP Clive Lewis, who has warned pro-strike colleagues ‘on their heads be it’:

‘Because people of principle can reach different decisions about how to deal with the threat. People of conscience have reached different views about what the right thing to do is and those views are sincerely held and we should respect them.’

Benn also defended Corbyn’s decision to have a free vote:

‘I think it is to the great credit of Jeremy as leader that he has recognised that there is a difference of view on this most important of questions and we have decided, he has decided, we are going to have a free vote’.

The Corbynites have jumped to the the defence of Labour putting across both sides of the argument as an example of the New Politics. Benn acknowledged this is out of the ordinary but told Nick Robinson it should be welcomed as it strengthens our democracy:

‘This definitely is a new and different kind of politics and I know for those who have covered politics for a long time, like yourself, it’s unusual, it’s different.

‘But do you know what? I think people looking at this will say, well actually don’t we want our parliamentarians to weigh up all of these factors, all of the voices that they are hearing, looking at the threat from Isil Daesh, listening to the appeal from our neighbour and our ally France that has suffered from such a mortal blow and has asked very specifically for our assistance and then reached a decision about what the right thing to do is. I think that this is a strong day for our parliament and democracy.’

As Labour descends into further infighting about the Syrian airstrikes, some in the party are beginning to look at Benn as a uniting figure — someone who could be lined up as the next Labour leader if Corbyn is ejected. ‘I have no interest in leading the Labour party, I’m doing my job as the shadow foreign secretary to the best of my ability,’ Benn said — which is a fine example of a politician not answering the question and leaving the door open for future opportunities.


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