A momentous day for Labour

Update (at 1406 on 30 Nov): The Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn will give his MPs a free vote on the question of airstrikes over Syria. The commentary I posted below about the wider context stands, though obviously the central question has now been answered. It does give us some insight into Mr Corbyn’s leadership strategy and the extent to which he wishes to hold the party together:

Today Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet will wrestle with the thorny question of whether to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs over airstrikes in Syria.

Inevitably Mr Corbyn is against military action (as he has been against wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere). It seems that most of the Shadow Cabinet are in favour of the proposed airstrikes, along with a significant minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They could hold a free vote, allowing all Labour MPs to vote with their conscience.

Or they could whip the matter. There seems to be some confusion over whether (under Labour rules) a whipping decision lies in the hands of the Leader or the wider Shadow Cabinet.

If that authority lies with the Shadow Cabinet, and they decide to impose a whip in line with the judgement of the Shadow Cabinet (ie in favour of airstrikes), then Mr Corbyn would be placed under the absurd obligation to decide whether to fall in line (against his conscience) or resign from his own Shadow Cabinet. I think it is untenable that they would put Mr Corbyn in this position (elected as he was so recently and with with such a large mandate). Were they to do so, rather than resign, Mr Corbyn would have little option but disband his Shadow Cabinet and start again.

But Mr Corbyn is himself assuming the authority, as leader, on whether to whip his party. If he is able to do so, Shadow Cabinet members must either fall in line or resign. There is potential for multiple resignations if shadow ministers conclude they cannot back the leader who has rebelled against his own party 533 times since 1997.

Given Mr Corbyn’s own voting record, many MPs may feel they are not meaningfully bound by a three-line whip imposed by him.

The Government has a tiny parliamentary majority and there are a number of Conservative rebels – it could easily be defeated by a united opposition. But Labour is not united. There is every chance the Government could win a vote on its motion regardless of whether Labour grants a free vote or not.

Thus far, the Defence Secretary has played down the Government’s prospects of success, while he and others have been working to persuade Labour MPs one by one to support the Government motion. The Prime Minister does not want egg on his face, given fresh memories of his parliamentary knockdown on Syria in 2013.

Depending on how this plays out, this could be one of the most momentous weeks in the modern history of the Labour Party. In my view, the impact on the integrity of the party could be even greater than that of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September. However he proceeds, this will be a key factor in his decision.

My Confession

I have a confession. Once upon a time, I underpaid my service charge for almost two years. I don’t remember the precise details, but I think I was paying about £27 per month when I should have been paying £100 per month. This lasted about 20 months.

I had been paying what I was asked to pay and I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Sound familiar?

When my landlord informed me that I needed to start paying my latest bill, along with arrears of £1,500, I was very angry. Why? Because they had my direct debit instruction and I expected them to take care of my payments.

I shouldn’t have left the matter entirely to my landlord, no more than many MPs should have left the decisions on their expenses entirely to the fees office.

For me there are some awkward questions to answer:

  • Q. Did I know how much my service charge was?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £1,200.
  • Q. Did I know how much I was paying my landlord?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £27 per month.
  • Q. (in the style of Jeremy Paxman) Did it never occur to me that I was systematically paying less than a third of what I owed?
    A. No, it didn’t. Honestly, Mr Paxman, it really never occurred to me until almost two years had passed.

I was mighty angry when I realised I’d been allowed to fall so far behind. Not with myself. I was angry with the landlord. My error should have been spotted earlier. Or, as I still maintain, they should have adjusted my direct debit to match their bill.

I was a little angry with myself, but only just.

I expect a lot of MPs are feeling a similar frustration. Some of them were knowingly milking the system for all it was worth, but others were taking only what they believed they were honestly entitled to. They did not expect the fees office to pay more than this.

The fees office has tended to govern expenses by the letter of the rules. There are some cases where claims have been refused for breaching the spirit of the rules, but they are few and far between.

Personally, I believe I would ruthlessly obey the letter of the rules. Any failure on this would be a genuine oversight. But what right do I have to judge MPs for their adherence or otherwise to the spirit of the rules? The tone of my article on The Thieves of Westminster clearly does.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
(Luke 6v41)

So what is my ‘plank’? Under the expenses system, I would no doubt have been tempted by certain financial scenarios.

I have some sympathy for Francis Maude’s indulgence. After a series of expenses negotiations, he eventually bought a second second home in London because he could not claim any allowance on either his first second home nearby (which he owned outright), or his main home in Horsham (which he still had a mortgage on).

He has been criticised for this behaviour and, along with other members of the Shadow Cabinet, ordered by David Cameron to stop claiming expenses on the mortgage interest.  In the current climate, that is probably the right decision, but I fear that in Mr Maude’s position, I too may have done the same.

This week I’ve been wondering about the case for an immediate election. I hadn’t imagined it would be something Mr Brown would favour, but perhaps the call to do so would become impossible to ignore. However, I have changed my mind. I do not believe an election in the near future would be a good idea.

The public do need to have their say on every apple in the Commons, rotten or otherwise. But the dust needs to settle, and perhaps the MPs deserve a real opportunity to explain themselves to their electorates.

Some MPs do deserve to be turfed out, but not all of them, or even most of them. The trouble is, there is now a widespread perception that “they’re all at it”. I don’t believe that’s true. I do think that these revelations have been valuable, but we need to allow some time to pass before we pass judgement on the defendants. We need to understand more clearly who deserves our wrath and who doesn’t.

So, as I recently suggested, the election is still almost a year away. I believe we need the time between now and then to grasp some perspective on what we’ve learned.