by Jonathan Todd
“There are people within the PLP who have never accepted the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn,” claimed Clive Lewis on Today on Saturday morning, in the context of a debate on Syria. This hints at the charge that Diane Abbott has previously made: Labour MPs want to bomb Syria to harm Corbyn. It takes a particular cynicism to suggest that MPs would put political advantage before matters of life and death.
It is precisely because the decision to go to war is so consequential that elected representatives cannot be bound by mere partisan calculation. MPs need to be able to look constituents in the eye and tell them that they acted as they thought necessary to keep them safe. They cannot – and, pace Abbott, do not – let how they feel about a party leader, or a whip, stand between them and doing so.
Ministers similarly need to be able to look people in the eye. They must be prepared to defend military intervention undertaken or not undertaken by the governments of which they are a part. The shared position of ministers forms the line of the party in government and all parties that wish to be taken seriously as parties of government require such common positions.
If ministers or shadow ministers cannot support these positions, they should resign from the frontbench. If backbench MPs cannot support whips consistent with these positions, they should not so vote. Whether the grandest prime ministers or the most humble backbenchers, all act in accord with their interpretation of the national interest.
We might – though it strains practical limits – live in a direct democracy, where military decisions are determined by popular referendum. We might – though it is also impractical in a world of classified military intelligence and rapidly emerging security threats – have a have a parliament of delegates, who vote as mandated by local electors or party members. Neither, however, are this country.