Britain is going to war in the Middle East again, kind of. Although the vote was probably going to go the government’s way, the scale of the government’s victory surprised many, especially given how split the country is on the issue. However, I’m not going to talk about the ins and outs of why the government’s decision was right or wrong because that discussion has already taken place. The political ramifications of the vote for Labour, and why it is important for the democratic process, is a largely unreported element of this story.
From the first few days of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader people from the mainstream media and his own party have castigated him for seemingly unknown reasons. Firstly there was the furore of the Privy Council, which Cameron didn’t join until months after his election as Tory leader, then it was the national anthem witch-hunt and of course Cenotaph-gate. But the reason for the faux outrage from Labour backbenchers is clear: they want to get rid of the leader and replace him with one of their own.
Unlike others on the Left I don’t really care if there are challengers to Jeremy Corbyn in terms of a formal leadership election because that is the essence of democracy. However the neo-liberal wing of the Labour party, a hilarious concept in itself as there shouldn’t be a pro-capitalist wing of a socialist party, is not taking part in the same democratic process.
This point is illustrated by MP after MP leaking stories to the media about potential coups to remove the democratically elected leader whilst simultaneously railing against the new leadership for wanting to ‘purge’ them from the party. Not only have Corbyn and Watson said repeatedly that there will be no purges they have done so despite the fact that these ‘moderates’ openly muse about bringing in a Blairite junta.
So how does this relate to the Syria vote? Labour MPs that supported the government have been inundated with people calling for their deselection at the next available opportunity, and these MPs have been vociferous in their criticisms of these people. Unfortunately, they don’t have a leg to stand upon because that is how party politics and parliamentary democracy work. The electorate doesn’t choose who the candidates put forward by the party are, party members do. Therefore if party members decide not to support you at the next election because of a series of decisions in the House of Commons you made, tough.
Before the Syria vote on Wednesday a poll was done by the Labour Party of its members to see their views on the air-strikes and it was overwhelming. Of the 107,875 responses, 64,771 said they were full members; of these full members around 75% said they opposed Syrian air-strikes. If Labour MPs want to say that they represent their entire constituency and not just Labour Party members, that is fair and accurate. However if you decide that you will vote with the government and against the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members, you cannot complain that people may want to deselect you.
If the shoe was on the other foot this wouldn’t be an issue. If a Corbyn supporter had voted for a policy opposed by 75% of Labour Party members, the ‘moderates’ wouldn’t hesitate for a second in bringing forward a primary challenger that believes in ‘compassionate capitalism’. What is so wrong about having a primary debate? Surely if the MP being challenged has a good record they will win, and if they don’t they won’t. This is the basis upon which party politics is founded: the membership holding its elected leaders to account.
Corbyn needs to do something about the composition of the Labour Party because on too many issues the ‘modernisers’ will oppose the leadership and vote to sustain the neo-liberal consensus. He has nobly said that there would be no purge of MPs orchestrated by the leadership, probably because the right-wing elements of the media are just waiting to compare him to Stalin. The removal of these MPs must therefore come from an organised and active membership that demands primaries against MPs they disagree with.
Those with the strongest arguments in the eyes of the members will triumph and those who lose will have to deal with that fact. The Labour Party, with the election of Corbyn, has changed, and the Blairites have a choice to make: stop undermining the democratically elected leadership and remain MPs, or keep speaking out and risk being deselected by another democratic process. They cannot be allowed to have it both ways.