Yesterday, Evolve Politics published a list of the Labour MP’s who either abstained or were not present to vote on a motion calling for support to be withdrawn from the Saudi coalition until a United Nations investigation could determine whether their bombing campaign in Yemen had breached international humanitarian law.
The motion was defeated by 90 votes, meaning that if all absent MPs had been present to toe the party line and vote in favour of it, the bill would have been approved.
Now, tweets from 2 Labour MP’s, Yasmin Qureshi and Clive Lewis, suggest that those who abstained from the vote deliberately defied a 3-line whip, going against the party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s instructions on how to vote.
3-line whip means I can't be at tonight's residents' meeting to discuss Hulton Park plans, but a member of my staff will be there. #Bolton
— Yasmin Qureshi MP (@YasminQureshiMP) October 26, 2016
No, but if I'd been at the vote, which I missed tonight,I'd have voted with the party whip for the suspension of Saudi arms sales @GZargoyle
— Clive Lewis MP (@labourlewis) October 26, 2016
Defying a 3-line Party whip is a major act of rebellion against the party leadership, as this quote from the UK Parliament website explains:
Important divisions are underlined three times – a ‘three-line whip’ – and normally apply to major events like the second readings of significant Bills.
Defying a three-line whip is very serious, and has occasionally resulted in the whip being withdrawn from an MP or Lord. This means that the Member is effectively expelled from their party (but keeps their seat) and must sit as an independent until the whip is restored.
The "Labour" MPs who broke a 3 line whip last night saved the women-hating beheading homophobic Saudi dictators a severe embarrassment.
— George Galloway (@georgegalloway) October 27, 2016
Whilst the motion did not explicitly call for UK arms sales to be suspended, Emily Thornberry stated that if there have been violations of international humanitarian law, a full and independent UN-led investigation would show whether UK-manufactured weapons and planes have been used to commit those violations.
In a heated debate, Thornberry also argued that tens of thousands of children are directly at risk if the conflict carries on in its present form, noting that the independent Yemen data project had highlighted that more than 8,600 airstrikes had been carried out between the start of the conflict and the end of August 2016, and that of these, 3,158 had struck civilian sites, with a further 1,882 striking sites of undetermined use.
The UN has already identified ‘widespread and systematic targeting of civilians’, including the bombing of hospitals, schools, and weddings which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians, including many children, and the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) are taking the government to court over UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
CAAT argue that the indiscriminate nature of airstrikes in Yemen means that there is a significant chance that any weapons sold there are being used for human rights abuses, making them illegal under British and European arms export laws.
The impact of these airstrikes on Yemeni civilians has been devastating. Oxfam have stated that air strikes in Yemen have forced over 3.1 million people to flee their homes, killed over 7,000 people and injured over 33,000 since March 2015. 21.1 million people are in need of life-saving aid which accounts for over 80% of the population, and the country is on the brink of famine.
Some 14 million people in Yemen have been described as “food insecure” by the World Food Programme (WFP), with 7 million of them “severely food insecure.” This combined evidence from a number of agencies would suggest that the call for a withdrawal of coalition support for Saudi airstrikes until an independent enquiry is carried out is perhaps the very least we should be doing.
Why did these Labour MP’s defy the whip? Why have they approved ongoing support for a coalition accused of breaching humanitarian law? Why did they derail a motion to investigate these claims, and in doing so allow the horrors being inflicted on innocent civilians in Yemen to continue?
Some Labour MP’s have stated that withdrawing support would go against UN security council resolutions, whilst Labour MP John Woodcock added that he refused to vote for the motion because the coalition is focused on training Saudis to be better able to be in compliance with international humanitarian law.
So to clarify some of the abstainers arguments, UN security council resolutions are incredibly important and cannot be ignored, but UN findings that ‘widespread and systematic targeting of civilians’ are being carried out are much less significant and can be disregarded for a while.
Additionally, we should still support the coalition because it’s carrying out some sort of bizarre health and safety exercise with the Saudi military, apparently teaching them how to not deliberately bomb civilian targets.
With arguments as weak as this, the abstaining Labour MP’s would have to forgive the public for thinking that this was really just a puerile attempt to undermine the Labour leader, and if this is the case, is humiliating Jeremy Corbyn really worth the lives of millions of people in Yemen?
And whilst the rebels will say that Corbyn also has a history of defying the party whip, it’s worth noting that these occasions include voting against the illegal war in Iraq, and against PFI’s which he correctly associated with the financial destruction of the NHS.
Not once did Corbyn rebel against the leadership for the sake of his ego, his career, or his bank balance. He did it to do the right thing.