“There are people within the PLP who have never accepted the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn,” claimed Clive Lewis on Today on Saturday morning, in the context of a debate on Syria. This hints at the charge that Diane Abbott has previouslymade: Labour MPs want to bomb Syria to harm Corbyn. It takes a particular cynicism to suggest that MPs would put political advantage before matters of life and death.
It is precisely because the decision to go to war is so consequential that elected representatives cannot be bound by mere partisan calculation. MPs need to be able to look constituents in the eye and tell them that they acted as they thought necessary to keep them safe. They cannot – and, pace Abbott, do not – let how they feel about a party leader, or a whip, stand between them and doing so.
Ministers similarly need to be able to look people in the eye. They must be prepared to defend military intervention undertaken or not undertaken by the governments of which they are a part. The shared position of ministers forms the line of the party in government and all parties that wish to be taken seriously as parties of government require such common positions.
If ministers or shadow ministers cannot support these positions, they should resign from the frontbench. If backbench MPs cannot support whips consistent with these positions, they should not so vote. Whether the grandest prime ministers or the most humble backbenchers, all act in accord with their interpretation of the national interest.
We might – though it strains practical limits – live in a direct democracy, where military decisions are determined by popular referendum. We might – though it is also impractical in a world of classified military intelligence and rapidly emerging security threats – have a have a parliament of delegates, who vote as mandated by local electors or party members. Neither, however, are this country.
“Authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,” Burke observed in his celebrated address to the electors of Bristol, “these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land.”
Burke would be confused by attempts to reduce Labour MPs to mandated delegates for the party membership. Such a diminution of MPs seeks to subvert the presumed will of the MPs and the PLP to that of the membership, so strengthening Corbyn’s party position.
It might be thought, therefore, a manoeuvre consistent with one of the motivations that Robert Colvile argues Corbyn has inherited from Ken Livingstone: “an obsession with winning battles inside the party rather than appealing to the electorate”. There are perfectly respectable reasons for opposing intervention in Syria. Corbyn might focus on selling them to the electorate. Instead he is sending emails to party members that seem designed to make life difficult for his MPs, who he purports to lead and who appear unconvinced by these reasons.
Perhaps this is an unduly harsh interpretation of Corbyn’s email. But there is less doubt that Lewis, who nominated Corbyn for the leadership and began his Todayinterview with an attack on the BBC (“so one-sided it was an absolute outrage”), exhibits another characteristic that Colvile says has passed from Livingstone to Corbyn: “a conviction that a hostile media are blinding voters to their true interest”. The proximity of Corbyn to the likes of Hamas and the IRA chimes with a further such trait: “a willingness to chum up to any unsavoury terrorists or dictators who share their rhetorical objections to the capitalist classes”.
The Livingstone tendency has never before held the party leadership. The Financial Times reports that 1000 members have left the party in the past week. For these departed members, under this tendency Labour has ceased to persuade that it is an effective vehicle for improvement of the country. The party is a dysfunctional means to a higher end for these ex members but it is an end in itself for those prioritising internal party disputes.
The 1000 will empathise with Jonathan Freedland: “With each misstep, Corbyn is handing Britain to the Tories”. The locus of the disappointment, therefore, is what is happening to the country. On Colvile’s reading of the tendency, this looks in the wrong place to understand the feelings of its adherents. Whatever may be happening to the country is secondary to their standing within the party, which has never been higher. Thus, these may be the worst of Labour times for the 1000 but they are the best for the tendency.
It is galling that MPs who are acting on Syria as their reading of the national interest compels them are being accused of conniving to undermine Corbyn, while Corbyn seeks to consolidate his party position by fermenting opinion among members that undermines them. Advocates of humanitarian intervention often draw succour from Burke’s dictum that, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. Both sides of the debate on Syrian intervention, though, should recall his precepts of parliamentary democracy.