Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Parliament Votes on Syria......

Tonight, MPs voted by 397 to 223 to authorise UK air strikes against so-called Islamic State in Syria.

I am of the opinion that this is the wrong decision, and I am grateful to my MP, Sadiq Khan​, for voting against, along with many MPs including the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn​.

There was significant division within Labour over this, in the shadow cabinet and much of the Parliamentary Labour Party as a whole, as to whether the party should or should not back air strikes. In the end, Corbyn granted his MPs a free vote.

Many Labour MPs who I have a great deal of time and respect for voted with the government tonight. Among them are people such as Stella Creasy​, Tom Watson​ (The Deputy Leader, whom I voted for), and Hilary Benn​, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, and son of the great Tony Benn​, who many will have seen in recent weeks in a recent speech circulating, showing him opposing a government motion to bomb Iraq in 1998.

I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in them having made the decision that they made. But I also appreciate that the decision as to whether or not to take military action is one of the toughest choices Members of Parliament ever have to make, and NO-ONE - whether on the Labour or Tory benches - took this decision lightly. They will have weighed up the pros and cons, they will have consulted party members, their constituents, experts on Daesh and the region, migrants and refugees who hail from Syria - all sorts. And yes, some of them will have come to a different decision than myself, most of the Labour Party, and a plurality of people in the country at large.

 Stella Creasy agonised over this decision, and was rewarded for it by people protesting ouside her actual house late last night in Walthamstow. By people phoning her office in Parliament and verbally abusing her staff - earlier in the day she had to duck in and out of the House of Commons Chamber because of it.
I don't agree with the decision she in the end took, but that is disgusting behaviour. MPs expect to be lobbied on issues such as this, but people should not be conducting themselves in that manner. THAT is intimidating, and it's wrong.

Tom Watson is by no means a Blairite (despite what some party members, and even newspaper commentators, have recently claimed). He was in fact partly responsible for ending Tony Blair's career as Prime Minister.
However he did vote for the Iraq War, and he has had to live with the consequences of that decision. If he did not do so before, he will especially now, take any decision with regard to military action any time it is proposed incredibly seriously, and weigh it up very, very carefully. Especially as the elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, he has a responsibility to do so, not just as an appointed, but elected member of the shadow cabinet.
Despite his support for military action in this case, he has stood by and supported Jeremy Corbyn throughout his leadership, asked for a two-day debate (which may well have caused support among MPs and the wider public to fall, given more time to weigh up the decision), and questioned the Prime Minister's assertion that there are 70,000 'moderate' Syrian fighters who could seize ISIS territory in the wake of air strikes.

And finally, comes Hilary Benn.

I am a great admirer of his father, Tony Benn. Although he was before my time, I have learned a lot about him over the past few years. I own a copy of the film 'Tony Benn: Will and Testament', that documents his life and interviewed him in his final days. Every single time I watch it, there are moments in that fim that move me to tears. Though many of some of Benn's followers and supporters in the 1980s probably contributed to some of the divisions in the Labour Party (which is not to say that the right of the Party were not also culpable), Benn himself was a man of honesty, principle, respect, kindness, and peace. He was always unfailingly kind, and it is my belief that Benn was one of the greatest parliamentarians there ever was.

Hilary Benn is not his father. He has never tried to pretend otherwise. He does not share all of his father's views, such as on military action or on the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. He has often said that he is a proud member of the Benn family, but he is note a Bennite.

But he is no trigger-happy militarist.

In 2013, when the House Of Commons voted decisively against bombing Syria, in order to remove President Assad, Hilary Benn was one of the key figures who persauded then-leader Ed Miliband NOT to back miliatry action.

Benn is not a Blairite, and though not to the same extent as his father, or Jeremy Corbyn, he is still on the left of the Labour Party.

Despite this, one of the greatest allies of, and one of the unifying forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party, since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, has been Hilary Benn.

Benn and Corbyn disagreed on this issue. And yes, that raises questions about what would have happned were they in government, but there is a very different dynamic between a Prime Minister disagreeing with his foreign secretary, and a Leader of the Opposition, who, as well as being elected partly because of his scepticism of Western Interventon, was also elected promising a kinder, gentler, more inclusive politics, had promised to put together an inclusive shadow cabinet, and prmosied a politcs which wasn't just top-down, with the leader issuing orders from above.

I do not think Corbyn handled the way in which he got to giving his MPs a free vote particularly well. But that is another matter entirely.

Despite these disagreements, Hilary Benn has remained loyal to Jeremy Corbyn, and when the Prime Minister referred to Corbyn, and other MPs who intended on voting agains air strikes, as 'terrorist-sympathisers', he joined the call on Cameron to apologise for such childish, insulting remarks, that demeaned his office.

Even in his speech in the Commons supporting taking military action, Benn praised Corbyn, and highlighted once again that he is a man of principle, and it is perfectly possible for people of principle to take a different view. He spoke of Labour values, of internationalism, of combatting fascism, of solidarity. He spoke of previous Labour leaders and governments that had taken part in that fight, against the Nazis, and in working together with other countries to found the United Nations.

By all accounts, regardless of what side of the debate you sat on, Hilary Benn made one of the most remarkable speeches ever given by a parliamentarian tonight. He spoke with passion, clarity, determination, and commitment. And while I am deeply uncomfortable with what it was Benn was actually arguing for, and the fact that the House Of Commons broke long-established tradition in applauding, there is no doubt that the power of such a speech deserved recognition. Even Hilary's father never quite managed applause from all sides of the House.

Now, here comes the criticism of Hilary. At the (completely justified) protest outside Parliament asking that we Don't Bomb Syria, one of the chants apparently heard was 'Hilary Benn, shame on you!'

Other people have said since the vote that Tony Benn would be turning in his grave, and would be ashamed of his son for what he has done tonight.

While I understand the strength of feeling of those that, like me, oppose air strikes in Syria, then on this point, I respectfully disagree.

Tony Benn was a great man. He was a devout believer in peace, in the power of politics. One of his greatest quotations was that 'If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.'

I have no doubt that Tony would have disagreed ferociously with his son and the action that he chose to support tonight.

But he would not be ashamed.

Tony Benn had the utmost respect for his fellow human beings. He respected that others - including in his own family - held different points of view to his own. But he loved them, and loved other people in the Labour family, all the same. One of his greatest friendships towards the end of his life was with one of his political rivals on the right of the party, Denis Healey.

Though he would not have agreed with the reasoning, or most of the content, of his son's speech tonight, then he would have been immensely proud.

Proud that his son is an MP at all. Proud that his son is an MP for the same party as him - one that they both love. Proud that he has progressed so much over the years that he has been in Parliament. Proud that he is now the Shadow Foreign Secretary and that he therefore, may one day, be the Foreign Secretary for Great Britain.

And proud that he made one of the greatest speeches of any parliamentarian in history tonight, whatever your politics. You may disagree with what it was arguing for. Believe me, I do, and seeing MPs applaud it knowing what it was for makes me deeply uncomfortable.

But conversely, I am also very, very proud to be a part of the same political party, the same great British institution, as Hilary Benn, after that speech. He may not want the job, but that was the speech of a leader. And though I utterly disagree with him on this on this individual issue, I think he is still doing a fantastic job.

And do you know what? So does Jeremy Corbyn. Because despite that fierce disagreement, he has not gotten rid of Benn, he has not replaced him, nor asked him to resign, and he has not been rude or unkind to his best friend's son - and indeed, his friend - in any way, shape or form.

MPs voted by 397 to 223 to authorise air strikes tonight. Just 67 (out of a possible 232) Labour MPs voted with the government tonight, with significant Tory rebellions (otherwise the motion would not have needed cross-party support anyway).

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: even if EVERY single Labour MP had marched through the 'No' lobby tonight, we would still be going to war. The government had a majority of over 170 for this vote, so the vast majority of votes in favour came from Tory, Lib Dem, and DUP MPs (all of which were whipped in favour of military action). And remember that it was a Conservative government that pur forward this proposal, not the Labour Party.

Hilary Benn, Tom Watson, Stella Creasy, and many other Labour MPs that I deeply like and respect will have to live with the consequences of their actions tonight.

As I have said elsewhere, and could highlight in an entirely separate blog post, I do not believe that bombing Syria will make us any safer from a terrorist attack by Daesh. I do not believe that we will make things much better by joining the bombing campaign in Syria, and I do not believe we should be joining it just out of solidarity with our allies in France - as Gerald Kaufman MP highlighted, it is not worth putting the lives of innocent people at risk for the sake of a gesture.

But I utterly respect that MPs like Hilary Benn have come to a different conclusion with this very difficult decision.

And as Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP and Sunni Muslim (who voted against air strikes) pointed out:

"There has been some suggestion in the last day or so that when the time for apportioning blame comes, those who have voted in favour will have to step forward and there will be nowhere to hide. If you vote against, as I will, the implication is that you can avoid the blame. To those who think this way, let me say this: if only the world were that simple. There are consequences and innocent people will die through action and in-action. Whatever we do tonight we will all bear a measure of responsibility."

Simply saying #NotInMyName isn't good enough. Innocent people in Syria will still have died no matter what decision Parliament took tonight. And if it transpired that there were Syrian people who could have been saved from Daesh had Britain taken action but who died because we did not, then those MPs that voted against would also have to live with the consequences of that.

It is often said that 'the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.'

Does that mean that I agree with what Parliament has done tonight? No, of course not. And I do not believe that every time there is a terrorist attack somewhere, the West should continue to take the knee-jerk reaction of just bombing what they believe to be the source of said attack. Such attempts have not met with great success over the last 14 years of the war on terror, and I do not expect them to now.

But this was not clear-cut. MPs thought long and hard, and gave very, very careful consideration to the decision they made tonight, on all sides of the political spectrum, and while I profoundly disagree with them, I will not hold it against them.

Regardless, the language on social media, and through other forms of communication, referring to MPs as warmongers, Tories, sending them pictures of dead children, and verbally abusing them or their friends or staff, is simply unacceptable.

Especially to those on the Labour side, let me say this: we are ALL Labour. The decision that 67 MPs made tonight does not make them any less Labour, or any less morally good, or respectable, than they were before. Whether Blairite, Brownite, Old Right, Left or Soft Left, they have all spent their lives opposing the Tories and have always strived to do what they believe is right.

I believe history will look back and judge that this was a night that Parliament - not the Labour Party, but Parliament - got it very wrong. But if that is to happen, then that is something for MPs and Parliament to reckon with for themselves. They nevertheless took the decision in good faith, and with the intention of keeping us, their constituents, the people of this country, safe.

That is not a reason to condemn, abuse, insult, threaten, or even deselect - ANY of the MPs that made that choice.

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