Labour opens way for UK MPs to back Syria strikes: reports

30th November 2015, Comments 0 comments

The leader of Britain's Labour Party on Monday said he would give his MPs a free vote on joining Syria air strikes, British media reported, increasing the chances that the RAF will join the air campaign.

Jeremy Corbyn is himself opposed to air strikes but some Labour MPs are in favour and the party faced a rift over a vote that has revived uncomfortable memories over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Jeremy Corbyn gives Labour MPs free vote," read a headline on The Guardian website, as the opposition leader met top party officials to outline his stance.

A senior source quoted by British media confirmed the report, which also said that Corbyn would ask Prime Minister David Cameron for "a longer timetable" for a vote that had been expected later this week.

The report added that Corbyn would remind MPs of the party's official position, which is to oppose air strikes without explicit United Nations authorisation.

Cameron's spokesman told reporters earlier: "We have always said we would only come back to the house for a vote if we felt there was a clear majority".

Cameron has moved cautiously -- partly because he was defeated in a vote for military action in Syria in 2013 which failed because of Labour opposition.

The Stop the War coalition, which organised a 5,000-strong protest outside Cameron's Downing Street office on Saturday against bombing Syria, said a free vote would increase the chances of air strikes.

"This would make war much more likely," it said in a statement.

Experts said that granting a free vote could also weaken Corbyn's leadership in the future but that the alternative -- ordering MPs to vote against -- would have risked a serious rebellion in his ranks.

Cameron has said he wants Britain to join the international coalition targeting Islamic State jihadists, justifying this as a means of "self-defence" to lessen the terror threat.

He may need the support of some Labour MPs to secure a stable majority.

As well as complicating Cameron's calculations on whether he can win the vote, the situation has unleashed a round of very public feuding between pro and anti-Corbyn MPs about whether he is the right man to lead the main opposition party.

- 'Iraq factor is massive' -

It is no coincidence that the row is about military action, the most sensitive issue for Labour since former leader Tony Blair led Britain into supporting the US in Iraq on evidence that was later hotly disputed.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now deeply unpopular in Britain, which lost over 600 troops.

"The Iraq factor is massive -- it's front and centre" for Labour MPs deciding whether to support action in Syria, according to Victoria Honeyman, an expert on British foreign policy at Leeds University.

"They're worried that they will look like they're following the Blairite approach to war, which is tainted," she added.

Ahead of Monday's meeting, the Labour Party said it had received tens of thousands of responses to a call by Corbyn last week for members to say which way they think the party should vote.

An initial analysis of 1,900 responses showed 75 percent opposed to bombing, 13 percent in favour and 11 percent undecided, party officials said.

Corbyn was elected in September thanks to grassroots left-wing support, but is not widely backed by generally more centrist Labour MPs.

Yet any challenge to him would be problematic because of his strong mandate and a complex process for removing a Labour leader.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said Sunday.

© 2015 AFP

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