Seventeen MPs, including 11 Labour backbenchers, demanded a pause to the bombing of Afghanistan after they forced a Commons vote on the campaign last night.
The rebels, led by the father of the House, Tam Dalyell, were defeated by 373 to 13. It was the first Commons vote linked to the conflict since action began. Four tellers opposed to the bombing ensured that the vote took place, in effect taking the total against the Government to 17. They comprised 11 Labour, four Plaid Cymru and two Scottish National Party members.
Dissident Labour MPs repeatedly challenged Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, as he opened a day-long debate. He defended the use of cluster bombs and carpet bombing, insisting that Britain was acting in self-defence against Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida network. "They cannot be allowed to get away with the murder of thousands of innocent people," he told MPs.
Mr Hoon appeared to alter Tony Blair's insistence that the Taliban's removal was a war aim. He said: "We require sufficient change in the leadership there to ensure that Afghanistan's links to international terrorism are broken."
George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, said he was voting against the Government to protest against the fact that MPs had not been allowed to vote on the conduct of the war. He said: "I never thought I would hear Labour spokespeople defending cluster bombs. We saw how accurate the targeted weapons were. We saw how accurate the laser guided weapons are. Now we have moved to carpet bombing with B-52s." He called for a pause in bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan "to send a message to the Islamic world" that the West would think again about the campaign.
Diane Abbott, the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, said: "I do not believe that a bombing campaign with a rising tide of civilian casualties which lasts into the winter and the spring is sustainable in the eyes of public opinion. If it is not sustainable in the eyes of public opinion it is not politically sustainable and it runs the risk of undermining the political and diplomatic objectives colleagues profess to hold."
Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, emphasised the help being given to the Afghan people, announcing that Britain would finance 60 Anglo-Russian aid convoys.
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said cluster bombs were regarded with "revulsion" by many. He said: "I cannot believe that the success of the military action against Afghanistan stands or falls on the use of cluster bombs on targets in or near areas of civilian population."
Mr Hoon said: "Cluster bombs, against certain targets, are the best and most effective weapons we have. Where that is the case, the coalition is entitled to used them; otherwise we would be putting our own ground troops at unnecessary risk."
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, asked Mr Hoon how many civilians had died. "There are no civilian targets," Mr Hoon replied. "An enormous amount of effort is made to avoid civilian casualties. While we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, I recognise that in a military conflict they are a risk."
Ann Clwyd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley, called for humanitarian aid to help displaced Afghans. She said: "I'm not happy to stand here and say that a hundred thousand children may die unless we can get that aid to them in time but that is what Unicef have told us."
But Bruce George, Labour chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said: "I believe the Government and the American government have behaved and acted quite correctly. The response has been proportionate and despite mistakes that have clearly been made the Government deserves support."
Donald Anderson, Labour chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "Our goals are clear and if we were to wobble now it would be tantamount to giving a form of victory to bin Laden and his associates."
The Labour rebels were: Diane Abbott (Hackney N and Stoke Newington), Jeremy Corbyn (Islington N), Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow), George Galloway (Glasgow Kelvin), Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak), Bob Marshall-Andrews (Medway), Alan Simpson (Nottingham S), and Mike Wood (Batley). Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham) Kerry Pollard (St Albans) and John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) acted as tellers to ensure the vote took place. Others voting against the Government were: Elfyn Llwyd (Plaid Cymru Meirionnydd Nant Conwy), Adam Price (Plaid Cymru Carmarthen E and Dinefwr), Angus Robertson (SNP Moray), Michael Weir (SNP Angus) and Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru Caernarfon). Simon Thomas (Plaid Cymru Ceredigion) acted as a teller.Reuse content