Co-op Party division on Syria action

After a 10-hour vote in the House of Commons on a Wednesday, MPs voted on whether the UK should join US-led coalition air strikes against so-called Islamic State...

After a 10-hour vote in the House of Commons on a Wednesday, MPs voted on whether the UK should join US-led coalition air strikes against so-called Islamic State militants in Syria.

The motion was passed by 397 votes to 223, with 66 Labour MPs (40%) –  who were given a free vote – in favour of the action.

This percentage was echoed by Labour and Co-operative MPs, with 10 of 24 (42%) voting to pass the motion.

John Woodcock, Labour and Co-operative MP for Barrow and Furness, who has previously argued that it was illogical to stop airstrikes at the Syrian border, was one of them.

“We were satisfied [14 months ago], even before the recent UN Security Council resolution, of the legality of conflict, and we were prepared to provide extensive logistical support,” he told the House.

“I share the concerns expressed so well by many of my colleagues about our ability to bring together ground forces, and in what number; about the viability of the Vienna peace process; about the need to stop the creation of a vacuum into which more extremists can flow; and about the need to recognise that this is not simply a struggle for a year or a couple of years.

[…] It requires rethinking the way we have engaged on the international stage. We and all our allies need to do much better than we have done.”

Mr Woodcock added that although there were “deeply held views” on either side, he would do everything he could  “to stop my party becoming the vanguard of an angry, intolerant pacifism which sets myriad pre-conditions that it knows will never be met, and which will ultimately say no to any military intervention.

“Some of those on the front bench and those heckling behind me need to think carefully about the way in which they have conducted themselves over recent weeks. We need to do better than this to be a credible official Opposition.”

Others who had previously been opposed to military action, such as Stephen Doughty (Labour and Co-operative MP for Cardiff South and Penarth), had a change of heart. “In 2013 I voted against military action in Syria, and I was happy to do so, because I did not think that the case had been made or that a plan was in place,” he said.

“I thought that through extraordinarily carefully, because I was very conscious of what the Assad regime was doing, and is still doing, to civilians in Syria. In all the sound and fury and rhetoric around that debate and this debate, it is absolutely vital to cut through and get to the heart of what we are actually discussing. I am very much taken with what has been said about this being an extension of existing action. This is not about starting a war or carpet bombing civilians, as one person has suggested to me; it is about extending military action against a barbarous regime that threatens our own citizens.”

But he later added: “I have my doubts about ground troops and the hopes being placed in the political process, and I have concerns about the Government’s failure to follow through on reconstruction in the past. However, we cannot let perfection be the enemy.”

Labour and Co-operative MP Stephen Twigg (Photograph: Andrew Wiard)
Labour and Co-operative MP Stephen Twigg (Photograph: Andrew Wiard)

Labour and Co-operative MPs Rachael Maskell (York Central) and Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) both spoke against the motion.

“I have held the Prime Minister’s proposal to the fire with experts, academics, people from the region, and military personnel. I have read more than 2,000 communications, and on Monday night I had a meeting in my constituency with more than 400 people present. More than 99% of those said no to the Prime Minister’s plans,” said Ms Maskell.

“Daesh exhibits the most heinous and murderous ideology, but how will precision weapons find their target without co-ordination on the ground? We have heard how important ground forces are, but Daesh integrates into local populations. Local people work for Daesh to avoid being murdered – they do not share its ideology, but they do so to save their lives. 

“Without a concrete military force, people will be put at risk and there will be serious casualties.”

She believes MPs need to ask more questions and have more time to strategise, and asked the Government to “come back with a more comprehensive ground plan”.

“We need to listen to the people living on the ground who have said no to this action […] it is clear that this strategy is weak and the sequencing is wrong. I will be voting to reject the motion.”

Mr Twigg made his case drawing from conversations with Syrian refugees from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

“[They] told us that they wanted to return home to Syria but they live in fear of their own Government and their barrel bombs. That is part of the context of today’s debate,” he said.

“After the Prime Minister’s statement last Thursday, I went back to Liverpool, where I met a Syrian doctor who lives there. He expressed the view of many Syrians living in exile when he said that for them the biggest threat comes from Assad. Indeed, the moderate forces that we seem to be relying on are currently bombed by Assad and by Russia.

“I fear that the lack of ground forces will limit the effectiveness of airstrikes and that the strategy the Prime Minister set out last week of ISIL-first – in other words, Daesh-first – will have the unintended consequence of strengthening the brutal and murderous Assad regime. For those reasons, I will vote against the Government tonight.”

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