Corbyn should learn lesson from Wilson on handling splits

HAS Labour ever before gone through such turmoil as it is currently doing over air strikes on Syria (your report, 28 November)?

The obvious answer would be that it did over the Iraq war more than 12 years ago, or even tuition fees south of the Border during the same period.

But you would really have to go back to the arguments over Europe in the early 1970s to look at an even more serious division. It was over entry into what was then the European Economic Community. The then leader Harold Wilson, who tried to get Britain into Europe when prime minister a few years before, faced a parliamentary party the majority of whom were now opposed to entry on the terms negotiated by a Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath.

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Mr Wilson made an attempt to whip Labour into the lobbies against Mr Heath’s proposal. Sixty-eight of his MPs rebelled. They included the late former Labour leader John Smith, Roy Hattersley, the late Roy Jenkins (who went on for another spell as Home Secretary and became president of the European Commission) and Shirley Williams and David Owen who both later gained Cabinet office and would subsequently be prominent in the breakaway SDP.

The rebellion was seen as severe at the time. It did not prevent Labour regaining office some three years later.

The main difference between then and now is the gulf between Wilson’s political acumen and Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of government experience.

Mr Wilson held his party together by the device of a referendum on whether to stay in Europe. Mr Corbyn needs a device too if he is to stay leader and maintain a semblance of unity in the party. That device is to have a formal whip against the air strikes but to tolerate abstentions or even defiance by members of his shadow cabinet. 

He has a credible argument against further military action without a Chapter 7 United Nations resolution.

Mr Corbyn needs to reinforce that by some credible political footwork in the next few days, ahead of a Commons vote. 

Bob Taylor

Shiel Court, Glenrothes, Fife