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How the Vote on Syrian Air Strikes Has Exposed Corbyn's Dilemma

02/12/2015 08:42 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

After whipping up excitement about a 'new kind of politics' during the Labour leadership election campaign this summer, Jeremy Corbyn set out a different way of running parliamentary opposition, but the looming vote on Syrian air strikes has exposed the difficulty of putting this into practice effectively.

I don't agree with all of Jeremy Corbyn's positions, especially his opposition to renewing Trident, and his problematic position on Britain's relationship with Nato.

However I was excited about certain things that he spoke about during his campaign, particularly democratising the Labour party and encouraging debate on policy rather than dictating party line from the top.

But it seems that the vote on Syrian airstrikes has exposed how this 'new kind of politics' sounds good in theory but is problematic when put into practice.

Over the last few months I have been quick to defend him after criticism from the right-wing media for not singing the national anthem and not bowing deeply enough on Remembrance Sunday, but as disunity at the top of the party threatens to paralyse the opposition on such a fundamental issue, it is becoming difficult to defend him.

It is admirable how he is arguing so strongly for something he genuinely believes in, but when the leader of the opposition fundamentally disagrees with his deputy and the shadow Foreign Secretary on an important area of Britain's foreign policy, they are in trouble.

Vote of Conscience

After lots of speculation, Corbyn has eventually decided to give his MPs a free vote rather than using a party whip.

During his time as a radical back bencher, he voted against the Labour party on countless issues, so to enforce a whip for this crucial vote would have been hypocritical.

On his decision to allow a free vote, he has said: "I am saying to every MP: you make up your own mind, there is no hiding place behind a whipping arrangement or not: your decision, on behalf of your constituents, whether or not we should commit British troops into yet another war in the Middle East with no endgame in sight, no proper plan in sight."

Corbyn has also said that he expects only 'a small number' of 'diehard' Labour MPs to vote alongside the government in favour of air strikes, but experts seem to be estimating this number to be around 30-40.

On Wednesday the debate in the House of Commons is set to last most of the day, with a vote on the motion expected late in the evening.

Based on Labour's recent lacklustre performances at PMQs, the government must be feeling quietly confident of the motion passing, but what is certain is that it is Corbyn's biggest test to date as leader of the opposition.

Tense Debate

There seem to be convincing arguments on both sides of the debate on whether to extend British air strikes on ISIS from Iraq into Syria, and previous military interventions, such as in Iraq and Libya, may play a part.

It is crucial to target Isis in order to protect Britain from further attacks, but the likelihood of civilian casualties, the effects on the wider context of the Syrian Civil War, and a long-term strategy to help rebuild Syria must all be taken into account.

According to George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman, the Corbyn camp is confident that opinion on air strikes is shifting towards their position among the shadow cabinet and Labour MPs.

However I think that fear of future terror attacks on Britain will outweigh any considerations about the impact of British involvement on the city of Raqqa and more general situation across Syria and the Middle East.