Labour, Syria and the problem with mandates…

Some points on Labour’s problems with participation in the Syrian conflict. Labour has a decision to take. It can treat this important decision as

1) a test of political strength
2) an electoral question
3) a moral question

The news media seem largely interested in 1 + 2, and it’s a terrible shame, if unsurprising. This is, undoubtedly, primarily a moral question. Unfortunately, most of the 600+ people that answered my poll on Twitter didn’t agree with me.

Let’s deal with the first two options first though.

Labour Party members are clearly very opposed to Labour MPs supporting the Government plans for Syria (the leaders office are claiming 75% opposition, from their very unscientific email-poll over the weekend).

Labour’s voters, however, tend towards the opposite view. They support the intervention in Syria, and the wider electorate are even more at odds with Labour’s members.

Moral decisions should not be changed by a weight of opinion, and these figures should have no bearing on anyone’s position, apart from to teach a good lesson to those who want MPs to be bullied into obeying party activists.

There are, of course, plenty of voices demanding that MPs do what party membership tells them, and there are also demands for the leadership to flex its muscles and whip people into line. This argument is in trouble on two counts:

Firstly, I think it’s clear that it is on dodgy moral ground.

Secondly, if they are arguing for mandates, in principle, they need to be aware that MPs would be better advised to take one from the electorate rather than the plainly-unrepresentative self-selectorate inside The Labour Party.

Labour Party members will kill the party stone dead if they insist on dictating outcomes to parliamentarians in this way. They turn Labour into a thoroughly unprincipled mess.

In raising the idea of mandates, they can also give a gift to parties like UKIP who would be only to happy to see politics reduced to a reflexive Direct Democracy where the borders are built high and nooses dangle higher.

I suspect, somewhere in Oldham, they’re already knocking up leaflets to show that Labour is at odds with it’s wider voters if it opposes the Government on Syria.

Labour members should be breathing a sigh of relief that MPs are mostly serious people who are likely to make sure that they at least understand both their electorate and their party members before they move to any decision — but that the decision should ultimately be treated by each MP as a moral one.

If they do that, Parliament can then benefit from the distributed moral wisdom of its members, and — hey presto — democracy does it’s job.

The role of a good political party

This brings us to Labour’s problem. Once MPs have done that moral deliberation, an effective party would coral them in one place and get a united position out of them. A list of demands, a list of objections, an alternative vision that they can unite around.

Sure, a few will defy the whip and that’s a good thing, because they can’t do it lightly and they will have to explain why.

In a good democracy, government needs this kind of challenge. They should deliberate in a tough way, get the best negotiating position that strikes that magical ‘political’ balance between morality and pragmatism, then negotiate hard and improve government decisions.

It now seems that Labour will be allowing a free vote on this so it won’t even attempt to provide this essential service of opposition on this question. It is asking for a two-day debate as a sticking plaster to cover for the lack of compressed wisdom it would get from a functioning internal party debate..

When some of us, back in August, said “putting Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party is like filling an ‘unleaded’ car with diesel”, this is what we meant. It actually won’t work. We weren’t trying to talk those voters out of something sensible. We were saying “this is bound to end in tears.”

Why Labour will now duck its responsibility

Personally, I’m very grateful that I’m not an MP, and that I don’t have to make a decision on this. I’ve read this and this and they are pulling me away from supporting the government, but that’s all. I’m not qualified to make a call, and — as I’ve outlined earlier — MPs need to do so much more than that.

Labour MPs are going to have to put on some armour if they are to make a principled decision to support the government, and they will have to expose themselves to endless suspicion if they don’t, because — either way — their decision is going to be treated as a test of loyalty to the leadership and obedience to the membership, whatever Jeremy Corbyn’s office are saying at the moment.

The party is too divided to perform the role of a good political party in this respect. As a long-standing member, I think that any association with the odious Stop the War Coalition disqualifies anyone from being taken seriously on this issue in the first place, and unfortunately, the majority of Labour MPs won’t unite behind such a leadership.

So, we can say it again, Labour is very badly screwed at the moment and it’s very hard to see how it’s going to climb out of this particular hole unless Corbyn were to miraculously walk away and a half-decent alternative were to emerge.

It’s also very bad for the people of Syria who will be on the receiving end of a British decision that will be a lot worse than the one that the British government would make, if it were forced to negotiate with an effective opposition.

First published by the author on Medium.

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland. A left-leaning Labour Party member and blogger. I’m on twitter as @paul0evans1 and I blog mainly at the Local Democracy blog though I’m in lots of other places as well. I’m a massive fan of Google Reader – please follow me and share the better posts from your feed?