THE turmoil engulfing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour escalated yesterday when Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish Secretary, signalled that the party should give MPs a free vote on Syrian air strikes.
As Corbyn spent the weekend desperately trying to secure support for his anti-war stance, Murray suggested that the Labour leader should not try to whip his MPs to vote against David Cameron’s proposal to bomb IS installations in Syria.
Ahead of a crucial Labour Party meeting on the issue, Murray told Scotland on Sunday the vote “must be above narrow party politics”.
Corbyn has previously argued for a collective decision from his party on air strikes. Murray’s remark, however, added to the pressure mounting on him to allow Labour MPs to be guided by their consciences rather than the party leadership.
With the vote expected to be held on Wednesday or Thursday and the prospect of a UK bombing campaign looming, Murray’s stance even appeared to be supported by Corbyn’s far-left colleague and closest front bench ally, the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
Allowing a free vote is looking increasingly like the only way forward for Corbyn, whose grip on the party is growing weaker by the day.
Although a free vote would spare Corbyn the ignominy of large numbers of Labour MPs defying the whip, such a scenario would further undermine his leadership.
With up to 115 Labour MPs thought to be prepared to back Cameron’s motion to attack Islamic State in Syria, a free vote would see Britain go to war against Corbyn’s wishes, and would leave Labour without a unified position on a crucial matter of national security.
Corbyn’s failure to unite an increasingly fractured and angry party would add to the frustration over his leadership within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Tomorrow lunchtime, Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet will meet to thrash out the party’s position, a subject that will also be under discussion when the Parliamentary Labour Party meets in the evening.
Speaking ahead of the meetings, Murray, who is still deciding which way he will vote, said: “The primary concern when reaching any decision on this matter is what action will best protect people in this country. We will also need to consider what we can do to help resolve the unfolding humanitarian and political disaster in the region.
“These decisions should never be taken lightly and are the most important that politicians can ever take. It must be above narrow party politics.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Any Questions, McDonnell reaffirmed his own anti-war stance when he suggested there should be a free vote.
McDonnell said the “horrendous mistake” of the Iraq War had been partly due to MPs being “whipped and threatened and pushed” into supporting “something many of them did not believe in”.
He said: “I don’t believe that is acceptable. There are some issues like going to war that should be above party politics, and I think we are moving to a situation where, hopefully, in all parties on issues like this a moral conscience should be above the whip as well.”
He continued: “On certain issues, the ones really above party politics, we have got to have mature politics in our democracy now. This is a matter of conscience. You are sending people out possibly to die.
“There shouldn’t be any party discipline on matters like this. You should follow your own judgment on what you think is best for the constituency and the country.”
With the vast majority of the shadow Cabinet in disagreement with their leader on air strikes, Corbyn faced yet more criticism yesterday when it emerged that a survey had been emailed out to hundreds of thousands of Labour members and supporters asking for their views on Syria.
In addition, the Momentum group of Labour activists, set up to help Corbyn, was lobbying Labour MPs intensively.
Critics within Labour claimed that Corbyn was trying to use the grassroots powerbase, which elected him as leader, to try to “bounce” the shadow Cabinet into opposing air strikes.
Former minister John Spellar said: “He is almost certainly trying to bounce the shadow Cabinet into (opposing air strikes). I think it will have the opposite effect. I think people will be saying, we will not be pushed around like this.”
Spellar said there was “real anger” about the way the leader was behaving.
“Rushing off to do plebiscites every few minutes is a very odd way to behave. It is no way to run a party,” he said.
The MP also suggested the survey would only reach the new Labour members and registered supporters attracted by Corbyn, as the party did not have email addresses for many of the long-term backers.
“You are not going to get a representative picture of the party’s views,” he added.
Peace campaigners also lobbied MPs over the weekend while thousands of anti-war protesters gathered outside Downing Street yesterday.
The Stop the War Coalition organised the event as David Cameron gave his strongest indication yet that he will call a vote on British air strikes in Syria and government ministers rang round Labour MPs in an attempt to enlist their support.
Organisers said they were expecting around 5,000 people to join the rally in London, while smaller protests were being staged at 20 locations across the country including Bristol, Coventry, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Swansea and Norwich. More protests are expected to take place in Edinburgh and Glasgow tomorrow.
Corbyn did not attend yesterday’s demonstration but his frontbench colleague and fellow left-winger Diane Abbott called on Labour MPs to oppose going into Syria.
Abbott, the shadow International Development Secretary, said: “David Cameron has not made the case for bombing Syria. At this point, I do not believe that bombing Syria will make it safe, any more than bombing Iraq made Iraq safe, bombing Afghanistan made Afghanistan safe and bombing Libya made Libya safe. I believe and I hope under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour MPs in parliament will do the right thing.”
Meanwhile, at a press conference at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Malta, Cameron said: “I hope that when the choice comes, people will indicate that this is the right thing for Britain to do. It is and we should do it.”