COLLATERAL damage is an inevitable consequence of aerial bombardment and it looked as if Jeremy Corbyn was the first casualty of the new Syrian war. Or at least that was the consensus of opinion in the media until Labour's victory in the Oldham by-election. Many commentators were taken by surprise as Labour increased its share of the vote, giving some comfort to its battered and bruised leader.

In Westminster last week, Jeremy Corbyn looked like a prisoner of conscience, held in check by powerful figures like the Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, and the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, both of whom supported the bombing and helped make his position as leader untenable

Indeed, Hilary Benn was being talked of as a possible future caretaker leader following his “do our bit” speech against Islamic State “fascists”, which won cheers and even applause from the Tory benches. It seems that clapping in the Commons is now acceptable just so long as you are celebrating going to war. The SNP MPs had been censured by the speaker for doing the same.

It was left to the Nationalists, taking their cue from their parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, to provide the only coherent opposition to airstrikes last week. Some of the SNP speeches were as eloquent as Hilary Benn’s, though without the histrionics. Dr Philippa Whitford MP – without notes – gave a compelling, first-hand account of dealing with the human cost of bombing in war zones. She also pointed out that it is a bit rich cheering on the Kurds for fighting IS when we are refusing their demands for a homeland.

I don't know if any SNP MPs had private reservations about opposing the war, though I had no indication of it. They'd done what opposition parties are supposed to do: conducted an internal debate, with their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, making clear, initially, that she was “listening” to the arguments for and against the war. Then on the eve of the vote the party came to a collective decision to which every MP was expected to adhere.

There is nothing undemocratic about a leader demanding party unity on matters of life and death, like going to war. On the contrary, it is parliamentary democracy in action. David Cameron imposed a three-line whip on his MPs last week and Tony Blair always did on Iraq. Yet on programmes like the BBC's Question Time last week, people were talking as if whipping were some act of dictatorship. I even heard it described as “bullying” of “moderate” MPs.

This is nonsense. MPs are quite at liberty to ignore the party whip if they feel unable to support the agreed policy. Jeremy Corbyn make a career out of it. It doesn't mean that they lose their seats or get thrown out of Parliament, though they may find it difficult to get a job on the front bench until the leadership changes.

The point of a whipped vote is to make clear where the majority of the party stands on a particular issue and to present a united front, which is the best way of articulating it. What actually happened last week was that a relatively small clique of pro-war Labour MPs succeeded in defying the democratic wishes of the party, fatally undermining their leader in the process.

It was more a palace coup than a party split. In fact, Labour wasn't nearly as divided on airstrikes as everyone claimed. The Labour membership in the country was overwhelmingly opposed to the Syrian bombing, as were most Labour MPs. Only a quarter of the Parliamentary Labour Party actually voted with the Conservatives last week even though it was a free vote.

We now know that there was even a majority against the Syrian bombing in the Labour shadow cabinet: 16 to 11. Jeremy Corbyn was correct also that the voters of Britain were moving rapidly against the war and were looking for a lead. Unfortunately, they didn’t get one. This wasn’t “new politics” but good old "establishment rules” politics.

Yet, Labour's success in the Oldham by-election the very next day confirmed that Corbyn’s views are not as toxic as many commentators appear to think. The narrative we have been sold day by day is that Corbyn’s alleged pacifism, like his opposition to welfare reform and support for immigration, are vote-losers in England.

Not even David Cameron's description of Jeremy Corbyn as a “terrorist sympathiser” damaged Labour’s lead in this key heartland seat. Whatever you think of him, this was outrageous and profoundly unfair to the Labour leader. Even Tony Blair shook hands with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams. The notion that you “never talk to terrorists” is ridiculous – the Tories, remember, used to call Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

The intemperate outpourings of anti-war protesters on the internet have also been hung unfairly around Corbyn’s neck, as if he were personally responsible for every sociopath with a laptop. This echoed the way that Better Together used to exploit the anger of cybernats to portray the Yes Scotland campaign as extremists.

Labour's deputy leader, Tom Watson, even announced an inquiry and new Labour guidelines on bullying and abuse. You might as well have guidelines on the weather. Angry people now have a means of expression denied to them in the past, when about the best they could do to make their views known was to heckle politicians at public meetings.

Intemperate language on the internet should never be condoned – in fact it should be condemned wherever it comes from. But it is part and parcel of democracy in the social media age. Regrettably, there has been no shortage of Labour figures eager to flaunt their social media martyrdom. Twitter has become a pool from which establishment politicians of all parties draw to traduce anyone with radical views.

I don't necessarily blame journalists like the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg for reporting that senior Labour figures such as John Mann and Stella Creasy were claiming they were being “abused” by people in their own party. That is clearly a story. But journalists in my view failed to question the assumption that the abuse is in some obscure way orchestrated by, or the responsibility of, Corbyn supporters.

Actually, the “abuse” I saw was mostly relatively tame, given the standards of the internet. Any seasoned politician should be able to withstand being anonymously called a “warmonger” or being accused of “having blood on their hands”, especially when they have just voted to go to war. And it is perfectly democratic for anti-war protesters to hold a peaceful vigil outside a politician's constituency office, so long as they don't break the law.

Similarly, calls for deselection are not very nice, but they are perfectly legitimate in a democracy. If constituents and party activists feel that their MP is no longer respecting their views, what else are they supposed to do? There are double standards here. It is seen as somehow acceptable for Labour “moderates” to seek to deselect their own leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was – remember – elected by the biggest majority ever in a Labour leadership contest. No wonder ordinary Labour members feel frustrated.

But Jeremy Corbyn hasn't helped by his reluctance to impose his own authority on the parliamentary party. Last week's spectacle was humiliating. Following the Oldham result, he must now regroup and overcome his personal antipathy to leadership – his own. He owes it to the party membership to remind the vociferous minority of Labour MPs that they must respect the views of the majority of Labour members. And if they don't like it, they know where they can go.