This week MPs voted to launch airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State in Syria. The government won 397 to 223. There were 66 Labour MPs who voted in favour of this action.
The result has led to a furious reaction by those who are opposed. As an immigration law expert – and as an immigrant – I have received my fair share of abuse online almost always from the political right. But I have never seen anything close to the torrent of smug self-righteous abuse that some of our best Labour MPs have been subjected to in recent days.
It should go without saying that this is not what the ‘new politics’ is about. To his credit which I must highlight upfront, Jeremy Corbyn has always been clear that there is no room in the party for anyone who engages in such behaviour. The kind of politics he aspires to lead and transform is about transparent openness, deliberative engagement and focusing on policies not personalities.
This is all very welcome and it could not be more clear that the abusive trolling so many are receiving now from people who sometimes – although not always – tweet and comment in support of his principled positions lack the principles themselves that Jeremy so strongly endorses. They betray the new politics in masquerading under its banner while spreading their online rage. There is a bitter, biting irony here in online trolls opposed to airstrikes in Syria because violence won’t end violence who in the very same breath threaten MPs – including a death threat – for the difficult decisions they have made.
Let’s reaffirm what our Labour Party’s leadership has said this week. Reasonable people will disagree on this issue. There was a majority of the Shadow Cabinet against airstrikes and in the PLP, but there was also a free vote because it was recognised fairly quickly that there was a reasonable difference in considered opinions on this matter – and by virtually all accounts Hilary Benn’s passionate speech in favour of airstrikes may well have been the best speech delivered in the House of Commons for many, many years. This is not to take sides, but to say people of good judgement can support different conclusions. Labour’s leadership rightly gets this. But the trolls have yet to get this message.
I’ve been struck by any number of claims. The first is that somehow the Labour MPs who voted in favour of airstrikes have blood on their hands. This allegation gets the maths wrong. If all 66 Labour MPs who voted for airstrikes switched sides, the government would still win 331 to 289. Another clear majority. The airstrikes would happen anyway.
The second claim is that voting for airstrikes is voting to start a new war. This betrays a lack of knowledge about what Britain’s involvement already is. The UK is in a coalition with the US, France and others in air raids against the Islamic State. While our partners have been attacking Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria for many months, our strikes have only been in one part of the overall operations in Iraq. Extending the UK’s airstrikes to include positions in Syria does not start a new war – the airstrikes are already happening as part of a coalition the UK is already in. So what is new is also fairly modest: we will do more in an on-going effort we are already a part of. This does not mean what is modest is also ok and nothing I say here takes sides. But my point is there is more hyperbole and exaggeration about ‘launching a new war’ and so on that simply is not true.
Now let me mention a final claim. This is that MPs who voted for the conflict should all be meeting their constituents – like Stella Creasy is – because those opposed are ‘reasonable and knowledgeable’. Put aside the fact that not everyone on either side will be so. Why think only side of the argument has a monopoly on reasonableness? This is not the view of the Labour Party. And that is the right view. Listen again to Benn for an example – even if you disagree – that there is another side of the argument which claims to be no less embedded within the proud history of our party, its traditions and its internationalist fight against fascism wherever it is found.
It’s good that people are passionate about politics. It’s welcome that there is a deep interest in Westminster affairs. As someone who travelled to London in order to march against the Iraq War, it is also very important that we all feel welcome to express our deeply held reservations against policies that leave us aghast.
But I agree with Corbyn that what matters just as much is that we engage each other at all times with respect. If we disagree about policies, then let’s debate them – and recognise that in an imperfect world where Labour is not in power that this context may lead to reasonable differences on policies and political strategies. Let’s acknowledge and even welcome this. But let’s also take to heart that our debate about policies is about policies – we should all ensure we rise above the needless and inflammatory personal attacks.
I’ll end with why – it’s because the more we turn on each other or provoke deeper divisions because of the way we argue for our views we then hand the Tory government a gift. We take all eyes off of what they are doing and fail to hold them to account.
The British public need a Labour government more than ever. Let’s ensure we act like it – and stamp out the trolling once and for all.
Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University, Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School and the Communications Lead for Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson