This story is over 5 years old.


UK Labour Party Splits on Syria, But This May Not Mean Electoral Disaster

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn vehemently opposed bombing Syria, but 66 of his own MPs broke ranks and voted for it.
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn in London on December 2. Andy Rain/EPA

Hours after the UK Parliament voted on Wednesday night to allow the military to begin airstrikes in Syria, four Royal Air Force jets hit seven targets in oilfields under the control of Islamic State in eastern Syria.

Back in the UK, another onslaught was also evident, as the decision of 66 opposition Labour MPs to vote in favor of the strikes was taken as the latest example of widely reported divisions within the Labour Party under the leadership of self-proclaimed socialist Jeremy Corbyn.


In the wake of an electrifying speech from Labour's Hilary Benn in support of the strikes, by Thursday morning mainstream media outlets were all but declaring Benn Labour's leader-in-waiting) a little less than three months after Corbyn stepped into the job.

But even before the ruling Conservatives' resounding 397–223 victory in Wednesday's debate, Benn had become a symbol of Labour's divisions as he and other members of the shadow cabinet — a group of lawmakers selected by the opposition leader as a primary source of consultation — demanded and won from Corbyn an agreement for party members to have a free vote.

Much of the media's opposition toward Corbyn has centered on his unashamedly radical politics, including advocating the re-nationalization of energy and public transport, and opposition to the UK's nuclear deterrent, Trident, as well as being a vocal opponent of war.

His views have led the press from across the mainstream political spectrum to declare him unelectable, and since taking the reins of the party in September, Corbyn has been subjected to persistent and sustained attacks, exacerbated by a series of personal gaffes — such as failing to sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain commemoration in September.

Related: Just Hours After Politicians Say Yes, British Jets Begin Syria Airstrikes

According to Andrew Thorpe, a professor of history at the University of Exeter and an expert on the Labour Party, had Corbyn not decided to give his party a free vote — effectively giving Benn and other members permission to support the government — he would have opened himself up to charges of being dictatorial on votes of conscience and to potential embarrassment if significant numbers of his party chose not to follow his orders.


"He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't," said Thorpe. "He couldn't have won on this particular issue."

But Thorpe said that while the split within the party over the vote on bombing Syria was significant, it does not necessarily signify the future electoral oblivion that many in the media predict, or even hope for.

A prominent example of a major split in the Labour Party came in October 1971, when 69 members voted in favor of joining the European Community despite the party leadership's calling for them to abstain. Some among the dissenters eventually went on to leave Labour and form the Social Democratic Party.

"That would be a good example of a split in the party that had a long-term effect, but then of course it's worth remembering that Labour won two general elections in 1974," said Thorpe.

Nevertheless, the political landscape is very different today.

In national elections in May, Labour was almost wiped out in Scotland and saw disappointing results in Wales, both traditional strongholds from which the party has drawn significant numbers of MPs when they have won a governing majority.

According to Benjamin Butterworth, the London representative for Young Labour, which represents Labour Party members ages 14 to 26, winning back support in areas such as Scotland will be key to any revival for the party.

"I think it would be wrong to say [Corbyn] is unelectable until we see the results of actual elections," Butterworth said, noting that elections in Scotland and Wales and for the London Assembly next year will give a clearer indication of whether Corbyn is able to inspire greater support among previously alienated voters.


While Butterworth doubts there will be an overwhelming shift back toward Labour in Scotland so soon "regardless of who is in charge of the [Labour] party," the surge in youth participation that Corbyn's candidacy in the Labour leadership race inspired earlier this year is cause for optimism.

Many young people, he said, are energized by the alternative that Corbyn represents, and especially by the anti-austerity message he promotes in the face of debilitating cuts to public services that will deepen further under the Conservatives over the next five years.

"I think there is a real sense that we didn't make this crisis as young people, so why are we bearing the brunt of it, and Jeremy Corbyn speaks to that better than most other politicians," Butterworth said.

Corbyn may also be able to draw greater support from Scotland, where a far more progressive politics is favored by voters, and where policies that Corbyn supports such as free higher education are already in place.

Related: Britain's Labour Party Elects Leftist Jeremy Corbyn as Leader in Major Upset

But among the obstacles he will face in clawing back such critical regions is the strong and unified performance of the Scottish National Party in the UK Parliament after this year's election saw their parliamentary representation jump from six to 56 members. That is buoyed by the exuberant and outspoken manner of their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who drew gushing praise from political commentators after impressive appearances in televised leadership debates prior to the election.


On top of that, Corbyn will have to contend with his association with hard-left activists — an association many members of the public are likely to find unpalatable in the face of aggressive and threatening behavior toward Labour MPs who voted with the government on Wednesday night.

Speaking to the BBC, Labour MP Ann Coffey, who supported the airstrikes, said she had received messages calling her a "warmonger" who would have "blood on her hands."

Meanwhile, on Thursday afternoon, Ken Livingstone, an old school Labour stalwart who was the mayor of London between 2000 and 2008, told radio station LBC that Labour MPs who voted in favor of airstrikes should get ready to be deselected as candidates for the next general election.

Corbyn has made it clear he does not want that to happen — and a Labour spokesman said on Thursday that Livingstone's views did not represent those of the party.

Nevertheless, such intimidation is unlikely to abate, and some MPs have said Corbyn is not doing enough to clamp down on it.

Related: UK Votes to Bomb Islamic State in Syria as Protesters Stage 'Die-In' Outside Parliament

But for now the biggest challenge to Corbyn's short-term future, beyond rebellion among his more neo-liberal-minded colleagues, appears to be the virulent hostility of the media.

Such treatment should serve as a cautionary tale to Democratic primary hopeful Bernie Sanders.

While the politics of Corbyn and Sanders differ markedly, they both hug the progressive margin of their respective countries' mainstream political spectrums, as well as enjoying significant support from unions and injecting life into a previously dispirited young electorate.

So should Sanders defy the odds and begin to look like a genuine challenger for the Democratic nomination, the comparison with Corbyn may reach a less alluring state – as a focal point of vicious attacks for both the liberal and conservative media alike.