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Britain: War in Syria, War in the Labour Party

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The British Prime Minister, David Cameron won his House of Commons motion to extend British air strikes from Iraq to Syria with the support of 397 MPs against 223. Among his supporters were 67 Labour MPs. They claimed they voted “with their conscience” but what is absolutely clear is that they voted against the wishes of the great majority of Labour Party members. Equally clearly, they voted with the loud applause of the Tory Party in the Commons and of the billionaire press the next day.

The previous day, Jeremy Corbyn, elected as the leader of the Labour Party during the summer with a huge majority, had tried to win the shadow cabinet to endorse rejection of Cameron’s war motion but was defeated. At the end of the Commons debate itself, Hilary Benn, shadow Foreign Secretary, summed up for Labour by presenting the arguments in favour of war more effectively than Cameron himself.

Appealing directly to the Labour benches, he resorted to the old argument that, in order to fight fascism and defend democracy, it is necessary to support British imperialism's wars: “... we are here faced by fascists … And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. … It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.”

This was music not only to the ears of the Tory warmongers but to the Corbyn-hating journalists of Britain's leading “liberal” newspaper, The Guardian. Its parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, could hardly contain his admiration. Invoking the memory of the first Iraq war, he described Benn's speech as “Verbal shock and awe … even those who disagreed with him were spellbound … MPs on both sides of the House started clapping and cheering. Some gave him a standing ovation.”

The whole episode, from shadow cabinet meeting to Commons vote, reveals the determination of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party to bring down Corbyn, no matter what the cost. Only last month, Hilary Benn was opposed to bombing Syria but now the real issue was not how to defeat ISIS but how to defeat Corbyn and, behind him, the majority of the Labour Party membership.

This, too, delighted the Guardian journalist, “Syria may not be liberated, but Hilary Benn has been. Freed from the burden of his father’s shadow. Freed from the necessity of toeing a party line. Free to be himself. Free of doubt. Where others – both for and against extending air-strikes on Syria – had spoken with hand-wringing angst of the torment they had suffered in squaring their consciences, Benn knew only moral certainty. The vote to go to war had never been in question. What had been lacking was a leader the House of Commons could unite behind. Now they had their man.”

Or, in plain English, here was a potential Labour Party leader who the British ruling class could trust as a Prime Minister, should that ever be necessary.

Tactics and Principles
Some supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, including John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone, had pressed for allowing Labour MPs a free vote, arguing that this was a question of tactics not one of principle.

They were wrong. It was a matter of principle, the principle that Labour Party MPs should vote according to the line adopted by the majority of the party. Wrong tactically, too, because this has set a precedent that will be exploited by the Right wing in the future.

Jeremy was thus principled and tactically wise to fight to impose a collective position on voting against war. Although unsuccessful, his attempt to convene the Labour National Executive was also correct, as was his email to ordinary members to urge their MPs to oppose war. He was right, too, to point out in the debate that the 60 per cent of members who voted for him in his Party’s leadership election, voted for a no war policy. Various opinion polls and soundings show that as many as 75 per cent of Labour members are opposed to the war.

Corbyn’s democratic consultation of the members enraged the Blairite MPs, who are used to ignoring their members and seem to believe they have a divine right to hold on to their seats, whatever their constituency party members think. That is why right-wingers like Alan Johnson and Stella Creasy joined in stirring up a ridiculous hoo-ha about being bullied and intimidated by a few emails and on twitter.

The “free” vote (free of the views of Party members, not free of the views of the press lords like Murdoch and Rothermere) was giving in to blackmail. And, as everyone knows, blackmailers always come back for more. Giving in to a disloyal minority of MPs denied to the Party, as a party, the right, indeed the duty, to express the views of the majority of its members and supporters. Moreover, allowing Hilary Benn to sum up the debate from the front bench allowed the anti-working class media to lionise him as Labour’s next leader.

The Right wing, and their backers in the media and business circles, thought that Blair had completed the handing over of “the party of the trade unions” to business friendly Liberalism. They were horrified when hundreds of thousands of socialists, trades unionists and young working class people took its top leadership position away from them by voting for Corbyn. For them, the removal of Corbyn is a prerequisite for restoring the Party’s credibility in the eyes of the ruling class.

That is why, over the past three months, they have used the whole spectrum of the bourgeois press from the rabid Daily Mail to the sneering Guardian, to undermine him. Their regular sniping at the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, because he beat his Blairite brother for the leadership in 2010 with the votes of trade unions, now pales into insignificance. Reversing the decision of the doubled Party membership in September is now their overriding goal.

Corbyn’s defeat in the shadow cabinet shows how far the Corbyn revolution has to go. The shadow cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party are stuffed with right-wingers and the pro-war deputy leader, Tom Watson, is in charge of the Party machine. Corbyn supporters in the constituencies and in the Momentum movement must mount a powerful campaign to democratise the Party from top to bottom. The vote for bombing has exposed who are the most hardline warmongers and anti-socialists. It is now clear that Jeremy and John McDonnell were wrong to put a majority of their enemies in the shadow cabinet and wrong to reassure sitting MPs that they would not face selection before 2020.

Every such sign of weakness has only encouraged an offensive, including the expulsion of genuine socialists, by the Right. The shadow cabinet grandees have declared war on the rank and file. Socialists in the Party must mobilise the membership to counter that offensive and as soon as possible remove them from power. Blair’s successors must not be allowed to complete the work he started, turning Labour into nothing more than a third party of the bosses.