Demonstration with signs 'Stop the Massacre in Gaza' protest, July 2014, London. Photo: Jim Aindow

The leadership contest is likely to be a missed opportunity for making Labour a serious anti-war party, argues Alex Snowdon 

In the Labour leadership contest that will formally commence in January, but in reality is already underway, there is likely to be very little discussion of foreign policy. In as much as any discussion does take place, we can expect to hear painfully moderate and uninspiring political positions being articulated. 

Emily Thornberry has been shadow foreign secretary in Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench team, yet I haven’t encountered any references to her record in that role – or her views on foreign policy issues – in all the media and political chatter about her candidacy.  Clive Lewis held the shadow defence brief at one time, yet there is no mention of this is any of the pro-Lewis cheerleading to be found in parts of the Labour Party, including elements of the left. 

Corbyn and the anti-war movement 

Jeremy Corbyn was, prior to his surprise victory in the September 2015 leadership contest, best known for his long record of campaigning in anti-war and international solidarity movements. This reflected a serious engagement with social movements, bu also an equally serious commitment to international questions as being integral to left-wing politics. In both these respects he was unusual on the broad parliamentary Labour left – which tended to be both parochial and Westminster-focused – though certainly not unique (Tony Benn was particularly notable here). 

Corbyn’s 2015 victory represented a major advance for anti-war politics. One of the most prominent opponents of the war in Iraq, and the wider Bush-Blair ‘War on Terror’, had become leader of the party that a decade earlier was led by Tony Blair. His anti-war record was a very major part of his appeal to Labour members and supporters, who were deeply disillusioned with New Labour’s pro-war record as well as wanting a combative anti-austerity opposition. 

Corbyn was admired not just for getting it right on the disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but for a long history of principled support for international causes like South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and justice for Palestine. 

The war in Iraq had been the single greatest breach between Blairism and Labour’s members and voters alike. It also came to symbolise a wider pattern of belligerence, militarism and obsequious allegiance to Washington in Labour foreign policy. Corbyn, like the left more generally, had been utterly vindicated on all these issues. 

The limits of Labour foreign policy 

Corbyn’s time as leader has not been matched by a shift leftwards in Labour foreign policy to the extent that might be expected. There has, for sure, been progress. Labour is now viewed as much less likely to support military interventions than before. When President Trump was ramping up the rhetoric on Iran, for example, there were welcome statements from Labour that opposed the drive to war. 

The willingness to oppose UK visits by Trump has also reflected a much-needed shift away from the old Atlanticism. There has also been greater willingness to condemn close UK allies like Saudi Arabia and call for the suspension of arms sales.

But that is about as far as it’s gone. The international section of Labour’s 2019 election manifesto was startlingly moderate and orthodox where the rest of the manifesto was packed with policies that went beyond the New Labour and Tory consensus of recent decades. There was no equivalent this time of Corbyn’s very refreshing and well-received intervention into the 2017 election campaign when he – following the Manchester Arena terror attack – explicitly linked Islamist terrorism with US and British foreign policy since 2001. 

Foreign policy was in fact almost invisible in Labour’s campaign. There wasn’t a single day when Labour made it the main focus of its communications strategy. There were no big policy announcements. 

This does not, though, mean that Labour’s approach to international issues went unmentioned during those weeks. Right wing lines of attack, especially on Corbyn, very often focused on such matters: Corbyn the IRA sympathiser, or the friend of Hamas, who is unpatriotic and can’t be trusted on national security was a recurring theme. Yet there was no fighting back against the spurious nonsense – no positive antidote to the smears and character assassination. 

Between elections the picture has been similarly one of reluctance to break the consensus. The first major, and genuinely damaging, controversy assailing Corbyn’s leadership was the rift over intervention in Syria in late 2015. The pro-bombing speech by Hilary Benn, in his then role as shadow foreign secretary, that closed the parliamentary debate came to typify the massive obstacles faced by the Corbyn project, above all in the field of foreign policy. 

It hasn’t got a great deal better since. There still hasn’t been a genuinely left-wing appointment to either the post of shadow foreign secretary or that of shadow defence secretary. 

Clive Lewis as shadow defence secretary argued for maintaining Trident, supporting NATO (even, absurdly, claiming it to be an expression of Labour movement values), and keeping the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on ‘defence’. His successor, Nia Griffith, has sustained those positions. As shadow foreign secretary, Thornberry has (unlike Benn) avoided direct conflict with Corbyn’s anti-war politics, but she has failed to develop anything resembling a left wing approach. 

Smears and scare tactics 

The cynical weaponising and misuse of antisemitism charges has of course made matters worse. One of the objectives has always been to stigmatise solidarity with Palestine, policing the boundaries of what can and can’t be said about Israeli apartheid and discouraging Labour politicians from saying anything about Palestine and Israel at all. 

This offensive has been largely successful, aided by a hopelessly weak and conciliatory response from Labour. Corbyn’s personal history of support for justice for Palestine has not been matched by any meaningful advances on Labour’s stance towards Palestine during his time as party leader. Most importantly, Labour spokespeople avoid commenting on Israel’s violence and human rights abuses as much as possible. 

There have also been occasional attempts by right wing media or politicians to generate scare stories about nuclear weapons: not about the terrible devastation that use of such weapons would bring, but about the scandalous unwillingness of Corbyn to deploy them. These have had little resonance with the public, yet Labour front benchers (Corbyn aside) have proved remarkably incapable of simply saying that, no, they would not approve of using these weapons of mass destruction. 

Labour’s commitment to Trident replacement has also removed an obvious potential answer to the perennial ‘How would you pay for increased public spending?’ question, considering the vast sums involved. Rebecca Long-Bailey, in a recent television debate, shamefully ducked the opportunity to express opposition to nuclear weapons when the issue was raised. 

Facing the future 

The excuse that anti-war positions are unpopular or an electoral liability simply won’t do. There was massive popular opposition to the war in Iraq and it is now almost universally seen as wrong. Other UK military interventions are viewed negatively by great swathes of the British population, while there is widespread opposition to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and to British support for Saudi Arabia. Popular opinion on nuclear weapons and NATO is mixed, but when anti-war arguments are put forward on these questions they get a positive response. 

Labour needs to greatly strengthen its politics on Britain’s role in the world and on major international issues. It needs to catch up with where Corbyn, the left and the anti-war movement have been for a long time. It should be speaking out on emerging issues like supporting the ICC investigation of Israeli war crimes and opposing Boris Johnson’s plans to ban public bodies from pursuing ethical divestment (the modern equivalent of if anti-apartheid boycotts had been banned). 

The omens are not good when we look at the likely candidates for Labour leader, reflect on Labour’s awful approach to the weaponising of antisemitism, or consider the disappointments and missed opportunities on foreign policy these last few years. Socialists ought to inject these issues into the leadership debate wherever possible and put pressure on the candidates. 

Above all, it illustrates why we have to look beyond a reliance on Labour towards building the breadth, power and influence of the anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons and Palestine solidarity movements. These will be central challenges for the left in 2020.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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