How 2 turn 139 into 1, in 8

Eight years ago, in March 2003, some 139 government MPs voted against the decision to invade Iraq, along with dozens of abstentions.  It was the largest backbench rebellion on any issue, by any party, since modern British party politics began.  Last night, just one government MP (the Conservative, John Baron) voted against military action against Libya, along with a handful of abstentions.  The government won by 557 votes to 13, a whopping majority of 544.

There are multiple reasons that explain why one vote saw such a large revolt, the other so small.  The UN authorisation in Resolution 1973 matters – Jack Straw’s claim in 2003 that Resolution 1441 was sufficient for Iraq failed to convince many MPs.  But the party – or, in this case, parties – in power also matters.  All other things being equal, Labour MPs are more likely to rebel against military action, with or without UN approval, compared to Conservatives.  There were, for example, no Conservative rebellions at all when it came to votes on war in 1990 and 1991 following the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. But it is also that, regardless of the party in power, votes on military action rarely see large government rebellions: the Iraq votes in February and March 2003 were very much the exception to this post-war rule.

For example, less than two years before Iraq, in November 2001, a mere 11 Labour MPs registered their opposition to the war in Afghanistan.  In April 1999 (albeit after a procedural mix-up), just 13 Labour MPs voted against the war in Kosovo.  In February 1998, only 22 Labour MPs opposed Bill Clinton’s bombing of Iraq.

A secondary issue – which last night’s voting also illustrates – is the decline of what could broadly be called the ‘pacifist left’.  One needs to be careful about such labels.  There is the story – recounted here – of one MP during arguments over Iraq who responded to this nomenclature with ‘you call me that again and I’ll clout you’.  But the size of Labour opposition to military intervention has been in steady decline for more than two decades.

There were, for example, 33 Labour rebels on the Falklands vote May 1982. Labour opposition to intervention in Kuwait in 1991 peaked at 55, but has been in freefall since.  Last night just 11 Labour MPs (including tellers) voted against the motion – along with some abstentions – the same size revolt as in 2001.  A slightly larger proportion of a smaller party, for sure, but still a tiny proportion.

None of this, however, as Andrew Sparrow notes, is to assume that the lack of votes cast against the government necessarily indicates whole-hearted support or enthusiasm.  There were plenty of MPs last night who expressed their doubts with voice, not vote.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

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