It now looks very likely that the Labour Party will give free votes to its MPs in the upcoming Commons votes on Trident renewal and possible air strikes in Syria.
The party is split on both issues, and in particular its new leadership is at odds with large numbers of MPs. Free votes are often granted when there are divisions like this within parties; splits are never as newsworthy when they take place on free votes. So the tactical reasons for having free votes are pretty obvious.
Free votes would also chime with the Corbyn leadership’s talk of a new way of doing politics. A potentially difficult division suddenly becomes a discussion, in which different points of view are encouraged. All very comradely.
But still, this is a pretty fundamental change in politics in this country. Free votes usually occur on issues which, even if important to those affected, are not widely seen as central to political life. They often involve some God, or a bit of bedroom, or some furry animals. Whatever your views on Syria or Trident, these are issues of a different magnitude.
Maybe this is the new politics – and maybe I’m just too stuck in the old ways of doing things to understand what’s happening (get with it, Daddio) – but this looks awfully like Her Majesty’s Official Opposition not having a stance on the best form of defence for the realm, or the type of military action required to defend British interests.
Because that is all the whip is: a stance. It is the party having a position. It is why there is a qualitative difference between MPs rebelling against that position – which would almost certainly happen in either case, whatever stance the party took – and the party not having one in the first place.
One defence is to say that it is precisely because the issues are so important that a free vote needs to be granted. We often talk of issues of ‘conscience’, and what can be matter more to one’s conscience than matters of life and death like this. The trouble is that this phrase, ‘issue of conscience’ is vague and fuzzy, and doesn’t really mean very much. Almost all politics involves conscience at some levels.
What flows from this seems intriguing. If a party can opt out of having a stance on issues as crucial as these, how exactly can it justify having a collective stance on anything else? Is the party whip now only to be used for minor or unimportant issues? Or even more broadly, what exactly is the point of having political parties if they do not take stances on issues like this?