Labour’s ‘free vote’ on Syria
Jeremy Corbyn has backed down from imposing a three-line Whip on Labour MPs over Syria. He may have been impressed by the argument that MPs should be able to vote with their conscience, or perhaps struck by the potential hypocrisy, having spent thirty years defying the Whip. But what is more likely is that Corbyn stepped back from the abyss when it became clear that he would face resignations from the frontbench. Labour MPs will now be given a ‘free vote’.
Whipping is a Parliamentary curiosity. MPs are literally given a document each week that itemises the parliamentary business and indicates its importance with the drawing of one, two or three lines under it. A one-line Whip is used when the debate or legislation in the Commons is non-controversial, such as for Backbench Business debates on a Thursday afternoon, or when the outcome of votes is not binding, like Opposition Day debates. Three-line Whips are used for more contentious legislation and major set pieces, such as the Budget. They require MPs to attend Parliament and vote in accordance with the position taken by the frontbench. A two-line Whip is very rarely used, but an example would be the day of a parliamentary by-election, such as this Thursday in Oldham, where MPs might be given permission to be ‘off the Whip’ on the understanding that they are out campaigning.
In normal times, a ‘free vote’ is a device to let backbenchers express different views, but frontbenchers are still expected to follow the Leader. The assumption around the announcement of a ‘free vote’ on Syria is that frontbenchers will be free to vote how they choose, without collective responsibility. Just to be clear though, it would be unprecedented if senior members of the Shadow Cabinet vote differently from the party Leader on such a significant issue. Similarly, the appearance of a ‘party policy’ on Syria, as dictated by the response to Corbyn’s hastily circulated ‘consultation’ email to members, that is at odds with the view of the Shadow Cabinet, is highly unusual. Jeremy Corbyn may have averted a crisis in the short-term, but the events of the past week could store up problems for the longer term.