Jeremy Corbyn urged to give Labour MPs free vote on Syria airstrikes

Houses of Parliament

The Labour MP John Woodcock has asked Jeremy Corbyn to give MPs “the same individual freedom and responsibility he demanded for himself as a backbencher” after comments by the Labour leader from 2013 emerged calling for a free vote on military action in Syria.

Corbyn repeated on Thursday that he would not allow a free vote on extending air strikes from Iraq to Syria, despite calls from backbenchers to allow MPs to vote against party policy. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has previously said that the issue of airstrikes in Syria should be left to a free vote “on the basis of conscience”.

Speaking in parliament in 2013, during a debate to mark the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, Corbyn said that “on something so fundamental as the deployment of armed forces, a free vote is the right thing to do”.

The Labour leader, who was a backbencher at the time of the debate, said there needed to be a vote in parliament before any armed forces were sent to Syria. “Some people think that whipping, lobbying and pressure are the only things that matter in politics, but, quite honestly, we are sent here as representatives of our constituencies,” said Corbyn.

“We all have a conscience that we have to live with and decisions that we have to take. At the end of the day, an MP cannot blame anyone else; it is his or her own decision and vote, and the record will stand.”

The Green party MP, Caroline Lucas, asked Corbyn if he agreed that MPs “need to be voting from our conscience, not from the whips’ list?”

“Absolutely,” responded Corbyn. “On something so fundamental as the deployment of armed forces, a free vote is the right thing to do. Many have said it is easy to send other people’s sons and daughters off to die and then hide behind a veneer of party loyalty, but the issue is much bigger than that.”

Woodcock, an outspoken critic of the Labour leader, said on Friday: “I have never seen the case for a free vote put more eloquently than by Jeremy in his 2013 speech. As a man of principle I am sure he will reflect on this and grant to Labour MPs the same individual freedom and responsibility he demanded for himself as a backbencher.”

Speaking to the BBC on Thursday, Corbyn confirmed that he would not give Labour MPs a free vote – which would permit MPs to vote against the party’s chosen line – on the issue of airstrikes in Syria, saying that Labour would “have to consider it as a party, consider it as a group and decide how we would react at that point”.

Labour is opposed to extending UK airstrikes against Isis into Syria from Iraq but could support a wider strategic action plan as long as it is backed by the international community. It is thought that around 15 Labour MPs, including Woodcock, are determined to vote for airstrikes and many more may be willing to defy a Labour whip.

One member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet told The Sun that as many as 10 front benchers were prepared to break the party whip. A shadow cabinet minister told the paper: “He says he’ll whip us, but we’ll see about that. If he does, we will ignore it. Several of us feel very strongly about this, and it’s time to end the nonsense.”

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has previously said that a free vote would be appropriate on the issue of Syrian airstrikes. Speaking to the Guardian during the Labour party conference in September he said: “When you are sending people with a potential loss of life I think it is a conscience decision, I think it is a moral decision. So I am hoping on the Syria thing it should be a free vote on the basis of conscience.”

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme on Friday morning, the former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said he agreed with McDonnell’s comments to the Guardian and urged the party’s leadership to allow a free vote.

Umunna said he was prepared to defy the party whip. “I think the problem is that ultimately I have a point of view which I have by reference to my principles and my values and my desire to keep the people that I represent safe. And I’m sorry, that will come before any internal party-political issue and I think I should be able to adopt that position without being attacked, without being subject to a nasty troll-form of politics.”

On Tuesday the prime minister, David Cameron, promised to publish a comprehensive strategy on Syria in the form of a written response to a report by the foreign affairs select committee, which concluded that the government had failed to make the case for extending airstrikes.

The prime minister could publish the reply upon his return from the opening of climate change talks in Paris on Tuesday next week, depending on the progress made in discussions between Russia and the west on the best approach to combating Isis.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Friday 20th November 2015 16.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010