Following nearly eleven hours of heated parliamentary debate, Cameron secured a big parliamentary majority for the bombing of Syria. All kinds of arguments were dug up and used to justify this action. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury declared his support for this “just war”, as the Church had done on all previous occasions.
From defending Britain’s Honour to “doing our duty” to our allies; from “making Britain safe” to fighting the fascist hordes: these and more were all used to justify Britain’s bombing campaign, which began within hours of the vote passing in parliament.
The Age of Cant
In order to understand what is going on, we need to cut through the dense mass of political conventions, lies and hypocrisy - “the all-pervading parliamentary cant”, to use the words of Trotsky. According to Carlyle, cant is the art “whereby a man speaks openly what he does not mean”. It is a particular form of conventional falsehood, tacitly acknowledged by all as a type of social hypocrisy.
Such language is used as a smokescreen to disguise the real intentions of the ruling class. This vote has nothing to do with adding extra military clout to the military operations already in place, which is negligible, and everything to do with prestige and the need to divert public opinion away from the burning social issues. Britain is keen to achieve a “place at the table” over the future of Syria, as a little lapdog next to France and the United States. The bombing, they hope, will demonstrate their reliability and solidarity with their other imperialist friends.
The Commons was full of such cant, starting with Cameron’s speech. It was the duty of MPs to back his plan to bomb the “women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval murderers” of ISIS - a description that could just have easily referred to the 70,000 jihadists that Cameron is relying on as ground troops.
This was followed by a stream of Labour MPs. “The mistakes made in Iraq from 2003 cast a long shadow”, stated Dan Jarvis, a former army officer turned Labour MP, “but we must not be paralysed by the past. When I look to my own conscience, I have to consider how I would feel if the worst happened on our streets and a terrorist atrocity succeeded after backing away from confronting the evil behind it.” The fact that such atrocities will now be more likely following Britain’s bombing of Syria had not penetrated our former officer’s head.
Even the Tory Julian Lewis, head of the Commons' Defence Select Committee, refused to go along with Cameron’s flawed arguments and compared the claim of 70,000 moderate ground troops to the dodgy dossier of the Iraq war.
Blairite betrayal and backing for bombing
The biggest applause in the debate, however, was for the speech of Hilary Benn, the Labour shadow Foreign Secretary, mainly from the ecstatic Tory benches, who gave him a standing ovation following his impassioned appeal to support the Tory government, which, according to him, was following in the footsteps of those socialists who had fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s.
Shamefully, this provided the moral backing the Tories needed. Hammond, the Tory Foreign Secretary, heaped praise on Benn for giving the best speech he had heard for 30 years! Benn’s intervention, summing up the debate for the Labour Party, was such a bitter betrayal, not only of Corbyn, but of the vast majority of ordinary Labour Party members and supporters, who opposed this war in their name. The speech would have put him diametrically at odds with his father, Tony Benn, who was head of the Stop the War Coalition until his death.
Of course, Cameron took no chances in the vote and whipped all his MPs to support the call for war, while Jeremy Corbyn, under pressure from Labour’s right wing, allowed a free vote amongst Labour MPs. In a fit of hysteria, Cameron demanded total support from the Tory ranks, who could not walk through the lobbies with “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” - a remark he refused to withdraw, which only served to inflame the situation further.
The dash to get a debate and quick decision by Cameron reflected the fact that support in the country for military action was falling. According to the YouGov poll published on Tuesday, 48% approved of RAF bombing of Syria, while the rest were either against or uncertain. But the share in favour of air strikes had fallen by about 10 percentage points over the past week, according to the pollster. That was a shift in opinions representing five million people. That explains Cameron’s haste. Opinion is changing rapidly - a reflection of the period of sharp and sudden turns that we are in. Things have never been so volatile as now.
Cameron had lost the vote in 2013 on air strikes against Assad, although he got approval last year for air strikes against ISIS in Iraq. Neither Britain nor Cameron would allow themselves to be humiliated in this way again. But time will tell. This mission is going to last years with all the uncertainty this brings.
When the vote came, Cameron secured a majority for bombing of 397 to 223. A total of 66 Labour MPs rejected the advice of their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and shamefully voted with the government. Following a consultation with party members involving over 110,000 people, between 70% and 80% opposed military action in Syria; but these views were ignored by those Labour members who voted with the Tories. Eleven shadow cabinet members, including Benn, Tom Watson and Maria Eagle, defied Corbyn and the decision of the party. Tom Watson, who was promoted by Unite and the unions as a “Left” has clearly exposed himself as a right winger. But he is not the only one.
In spite of everything, however, 153 Labour MPs voted against Cameron’s position and kept loyal to the agreed position of Labour Party conference, although for different reasons. Most were in the middle, and many could have voted with the government, had it not been for the pressures on them from Labour’s ranks.
Pressure from below
Many right-wing Labour MPs complained about outside pressures, bullying and intimidation, to support the Labour Party line. Of course, they are quite happy about pressure and bullying from the capitalist media, but are terrified of pressure from the rank and file of their own party. Quite correctly, in the face of wavering and opposition, there was a grassroots campaign to remind MPs of the party’s position.
Of course, this is an anathema to these “democrats”, who regard the Labour Party as a machine for their own personal advancement. Nothing should be allowed to upset this arrangement. Corbyn critic, John Mann MP for Bassetlaw, wanted Corbyn to take disciplinary action against and expel those engaged in such behaviour. This intimidation, according to him, had been on a “totally, totally different scale” to anything seen before. The Blairite Alan Johnson, former business secretary, attacked in his Commons intervention “the self-righteous certitude of the finger-jabbing representatives of our ‘new and kinder’ type of politics.”
A week before the vote, it looked as if half of the parliamentary Labour Party would back Cameron’s military action, but on Wednesday evening, only 66 Labour MPs in the end voted in favour. This reflects the success of the canvassing that took place, which the right are complaining about.
It was not simply the ranks. Corbyn made it clear that in the vote there would be “no hiding place for Labour MPs that voted with the Tories, which was clearly a pointer to deselection. “Any selection, reselection or deselection is at least three years away”, he told Channel 4 News. Some interpreted this as a threat. Clive Lewis MP, warned that any MP who voted with the Tories would face consequences. Even Len McCluskey has waded in with the threat that if the Blairites do not accept the line and stop plotting a coup, the full weight of the membership and the unions will be turned against them. They will in effect “sign their own political obituary”, the Unite general secretary proclaimed.
Corbyn supporters will be gladdened by the news that the FBU will be re-affiliating to the Labour Party, which could be followed shortly by the RMT. This will reinforce the shift to the left and further isolate the careerists in the PLP.
Right-wingers complained of receiving tweets and emails containing pictures of dead children, victims of the bombing already going on. Others received emails stating that to vote with Cameron would mean blood on their hands. The Stop the War demonstration outside parliament was also deemed as intimidation. Some surgeries of Labour MPs were targeted with a “vigil”, such as Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, who has been threatened by members with deselection. During the common’s debate, Ms Creasy complained about anti-war protesters abusing her staff over the phone. “I won’t hesitate to get the police involved,” she said.
The phrase “civil war” is being commonly used to describe the situation in the party. Unfortunately, certain lefts are urging people to keep their heads down and promote “unity” where none exists. You cannot have unity between the Blairites and the leftward moving rank and file. Both sides, reflecting different class interests, are irreconcilable.
The idea of reselection, as a matter of fact, has widespread support amongst Labour Party members and affiliated supporters. The Times YouGov poll gives us a precise breakdown. 55% of Labour members and supporters think that Labour MPs who oppose Corbyn are to blame for divisions in the Shadow Cabinet, compared to 18% who think Corbyn is to blame and 25% who think both are equally to blame. Most notably, 52% of Labour Party members and supporters are in favour of mandatory reselection of MPs, while 39% are against.
Those who support Labour now as compared to May are further to the left. They have been enthused by the Corbyn victory. This, in itself, reveals a widening polarisation taking place within society, to the left and to the right.
The right wing talks of “intimidation” when they have been constantly plotting to remove Corbyn, elected by an overwhelming majority. It is they who are the plotters and blackmailers. Was it not they who threatened “mass resignations” from the shadow cabinet if there was a three-line whip? Are they not involved in a plot to destabilise the party, create chaos and provoke electoral defeats with the aim of removing Corbyn? Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, called for a party leader in the country and another in parliament. He has also called for Labour MPs who are deselected to stand against the Labour Party. This is an open call to split the Labour Party, but he is not threatened with expulsion or discipline. Why is John Mann not calling for his removal?
This issue of support for bombing Syria has served to polarise the situation even further within the Labour Party between Corbyn and the membership on the one side and the right wing within the Parliamentary Labour Party on the other. The rank and file simply see the right wing as splitting the party and supporting the Tories. Anger is certainly rising within ordinary members over this, which will not go away.
Danger ahead for the Establishment
The dangers for the ruling class in this adventure are clear. Public opinion is very volatile. The mood can swing violently against the government at the smallest setback. The right wing in the Labour Party have also tied their political fortunes to this adventure. The whole thing can blow up in their faces. That is why serious bourgeois commentators have said that the question of Syria could eventually vindicate Corbyn, who is much more in tune with the public mood. From all this we can see how things have changed in the last three months. The next three will be full of even more surprises.
The Tory government is in reality in a weak position. It does not have majority support in the country. Under pressure, it has been forced to retreat on cuts to tax credits, although these will be later imposed when Universal Credits are rolled out. Again, they have been forced to back-track over the dispute with the junior doctors, faced with strikes in the health service, which are likely to rebound on the Tories.
With the increased austerity, the Tories will become increasingly unpopular. There will therefore be an increasing shift towards Labour in the coming period, especially with a new slump. The Syrian war can rebound on them also, as did Afghanistan and Iraq. People are sick of military adventures. However, with the Tories split and in a mess, the ruling class will not want a Corbyn Labour government coming to power under enormous pressure from below, especially in a deepening economic crisis of capitalism.
The ruling class fully stand behind the Blairites. They are their agents within the Labour Party. As we can see now, they are preparing to split the Labour Party, if they cannot remove Corbyn. The right wing did this in 1983 with the SDP and today’s Blairites will be prepared to do the same again. They are a Fifth Column within Labour’s ranks.
The rank and file must hold these carpetbaggers to account. If they refuse to desist from their sabotage, the Blairites should face deselection. We cannot afford to put up with this organised disruption any longer. It is time these closet Tories were shown the door. The fight has well and truly begun.
We have entered a new period in Britain, as elsewhere. All the old ways of the past are being rapidly discredited. The old stability is breaking down. The anger and bitterness, which has been building up below the surface, is reflecting itself in sudden sharp changes in consciousness. New layers are being drawn into activity, which is shaking up the status quo. Millions are beginning to question the capitalist system, which has been reflected in the emergence of Corbynism. The battles that loom ahead will serve to transform and retransform the mass organisations and open up the way for the development of Marxist ideas.