Syria debate morphs into a struggle for the very heart of Labour

Love Heart

Two intertwined power struggles are being fought in the Labour party this week, one over British airstrikes in Syria and the other over the future of Labour, with questions raised over how it will make collective decisions in the future.

The conduct and tone of the debate over the former may yet determine the future of the party itself.

For the past two months both ideological wings have been acutely aware of the febrile nature of rank and file party opinion, and as a result neither side at the very top of the party has wanted to take the blame for firing the first shot in a party civil war. The faction that comes to be regarded by ordinary party members as the instigator may be so badly handicapped they lose.

Yet at the same time the issue of Syria inflames so much passion in the party, partly due to Iraq, the Blair legacy and its wider symbolic importance to Britain’s place in the world, it cannot be guaranteed that either side will be able to restrain themselves. The issues are too fundamental to let narrow internal advantage become the primary consideration. Syria may also be one of the few votes this parliament when the position of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) matters in the real world.

For those seeking to avoid a party civil war the position is finely balanced.

It appears this weekend as if the tide in the parliamentary party is swinging, if anything, towards opposition to war. A week ago supporters of airstrikes thought in the wake of the Paris terror attacks that there was a substantial majority of Labour MPs for war, but they now fear it is finely balanced at best or instead a majority opposed. “People that I would have had down as supporters are expressing doubts,” said one source.

If that is the case David Cameron may have to hold back from a Commons vote.

The legality of the war, and the role of the United Nations, is a secondary issue in this debate. But the practicalities of the ground troops supposedly due to capture Isis-held land in northern Syria is playing on Labour MPs’ minds. Corbyn, who has been relatively silent in shadow cabinet meetings, put forward the case against intervention cogently on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, questioning the military reliability, whereabouts and ideological beliefs of the 70,000 moderate forces identified by the joint intelligence committee.

In a sign that the argument is shifting opinion in the PLP, supporters of airstrikes may formally ask Downing Street to justify the 70,000 figure, including their ideological allegiances and willingness to fight Isis in Syria as opposed to Bashar al-Assad closer to Aleppo.

The shifting mood in the PLP may also explain Corbyn’s decision not yet to concede a free vote, even though his allies John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and Momentum have suggested one.

At present the leader is focused on maximising pressure on his MPs, even if it has meant he has taken risks with party unity. Corbyn’s statement setting out his views midway through a shadow cabinet discussion process, for instance, making it clear he will never support bombing Syria, was a signal to the constituencies. It gave legitimacy to the letters sent out by the Momentum group to put pressure on MPs.

The sudden consultation with party members for which there is no constitutional basis in the party, and anyway is so haphazardly organised that it cannot be a reliable test of party opinion, also looks like an effort to ally the leader with the party rank and file against MPs,

A mooted emergency meeting of the national executive, asserting that the terms of the Labour conference motion on Syria have not been met, would also portray him as the party democrat fighting his out of touch MPs.

His near presidential assertion that the party leader decides the party whip, and not the shadow cabinet, may not be the view of all Labour constitutionalists, but it leaves MPs fearful of displaying disloyalty.

Even those close to Corbyn say they do not know if he will relent and allow a free vote. One said: “You never know with him. The normal rules of party leadership have been torn up. He is very unpredictable.”

There is a feeling those who might back intervention have been bracketed as Blairite backers of the government.

The leader clearly feels this war is so dangerous, and so much a repeat of previous ill-judged British interventions, that it is legitimate to do all that he can to generate opposition in the Commons and to try to isolate the shadow cabinet, if this means confronting his shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, and his deputy leader, Tom Watson. Blair, for instance, imposed a three-line whip ahead of the Iraq war. it is argued.

With Corbyn due to meet his shadow cabinet on Monday to finally decide whether to push a whip against war, he can afford to wait for an update from the whip’s office before deciding his course of action.

On balance it is unlikely he will impose a whip, which would be seen by the centre ground in the party as confrontational

On the other hand, if the party is to split, then opposition to a British military adventure in Syria, and an early fight, may be ideal terrain for Corbyn to confront and defeat the moderates.

For the moderates the task is to show they have learned the lessons of the May general election and September party leadership election. At present they remain disorganised, leaderless and hardly intellectually refreshed.

Their issue is how to change the minds of the party, and that may only happen if the party recognises it is heading over an electoral cliff. Losing the Oldham byelection next week, or doing very badly, would puncture the argument that Corbyn’s politics can regain the white working class vote.

But one bad result can be attributed to the noises off from the shadow cabinet, and the mainstream media, now seen as the source of many of Corbyn’s ills. Corbyn will have to do very badly in the local elections, in Scotland and the London mayoral vote in May for Labour members to question the extraordinary journey on which they have been set.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 29th November 2015 16.02 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010