soldier Indian soldier guards the roadside checkpoint outside Srinagar International Airport, January 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dragan Plavšić considers what Labour’s foreign policy will look like under Starmer’s leadership

Barely a month into his leadership and Keir Starmer has wasted no time ‘repositioning’ the Labour Party to reflect ruling class priorities across a wide spectrum of issues. Most prominently of all, his focus on lifting the lockdown has been music to the ears of business, though it has left many working people distinctly unimpressed, as polls repeatedly testify.

As he repositions Labour to reflect these establishment priorities, Starmer also seeks the closely related goal of nullifying Corbynism as a political force in the Party. Here foreign policy looms especially large given Corbyn’s success in voicing anti-war sentiment and the threat this posed to a ruling class desperate to cling on to its position in the world order.

What does Starmer’s foreign policy hold in store for us?

Indian-administered Kashmir

A sign of things to come was provided last week by Starmer’s statement on the much-disputed question of Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state of India, where conflict has raged for decades between the Indian Army and militants seeking secession.

In August last year, Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP-led government revoked Kashmir’s special constitutional status, replacing it with direct rule from New Delhi. One result is that Hindus can now purchase property there, opening the door to its repopulation at the expense of the Muslim majority. Modi imposed a fierce clampdown blocking communications, outlawing assembly and placing Kashmiri politicians under house arrest with hundreds of others jailed.

In response, delegates at Labour’s conference in September approved a motion on Kashmir calling for ‘the restoration of basic human rights including the freedom of speech and communication, the lifting of curfews, and to allow the humanitarian aid organisation and international observers to enter the region.’

The motion also declared that ‘the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination in accordance with UN resolutions.’ In fact, the original UN resolution to this effect had been passed in 1949, when it enjoyed the support of India’s then Prime Minister, Nehru. Labour’s conference motion merely reiterated it.

Nevertheless, last week, following a virtual meeting with Labour Friends of India, Starmer issued a statement which pointedly ignored both the call for international human rights observers to be sent to the region and Kashmir’s right of self-determination.

Instead, Starmer declared that ‘constitutional issues in India’ were ‘a matter for the Indian Parliament’ and Kashmir was ‘a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully’. And although he added that Labour was an ‘internationalist party’ that ‘stands for the defence of human rights everywhere’, this was in tenor and intent a far cry from the statement Corbyn made in August last year when he said, ‘Human rights abuses taking place are unacceptable. The rights of the Kashmiri people must be respected and UN resolutions implemented.’

The motivations at work here are not difficult to decipher. Indian foreign direct investment in the UK has grown exponentially in recent years, while a post-Brexit UK will seek to increase investment in India. None of this was lost on Starmer who promised that a Labour government ‘under my leadership will be determined to build even stronger business links with India’.

Besides the hard fact of British capitalist interests, the other establishment motivation behind Starmer’s statement will have been India’s geopolitical role as a pro-Western counterweight to China, while the wish to avoid the loss of Hindu-populated seats to the Tories will have merely confirmed the beneficial value of the greater repositioning in favour of ruling class priorities Labour is now pursuing. This is why business trumps human rights for Starmer in India.

The Middle East

Another area where Starmer is especially keen to shunt Labour’s foreign policy on to establishment territory is Israel. At last September’s conference, delegates also approved a motion calling for ‘an ethical policy on all UK’s trade with Israel, in particular by applying international law on settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories and stopping any arms trade with Israel that is used in violation of the human rights of the Palestinians’.

In February, however, Starmer told the Jewish News that ‘I support Zionism without qualification’. This pointed lack of qualification indicates that Starmer has as much intention of respecting the conference motion on Israel as he did on Kashmir. Indeed, under the confounding cover of rooting out anti-Semitism, he will be sure to prioritise support for Israel, including arms sales to it, over the human rights of the Palestinians. The Palestinian question is one of the great injustices of the post-war period. Starmer shows every sign of perpetuating it.

Of course, some may seek to inflate Starmer’s radical credentials by pointing to his record of opposition to the war on Iraq before he was an MP and his vote against air strikes on Syria in 2015 shortly after becoming one. But closer inspection reveals that Starmer’s opposition has always had a thoroughly establishment character.

Take Syria. Although Starmer voted against air strikes, he did so on the most slippery of possible grounds. As he explained in a tortuous article in The Guardian, ‘airstrikes without an effective ground force’ were in his strategic judgement ‘unlikely to make any meaningful contribution to defeating Isis.’ But if ‘through international collaboration’ such a ground force were to be mustered, then ‘the situation would be different’, implying his vote would be too. In fact, he explained that he agreed with the government’s view that there was ‘sufficient legal justification’ for the airstrikes because of the pressing need to secure – of all things – ‘the collective self-defence of Iraq’.

Starmer thus offered the most supportively loyal of possible oppositions to the air strikes by voting against them because they didn’t go far enough. There is little sign here of lessons learnt from the catastrophe in Iraq; on the contrary, Starmer’s preference for air strikes supported by ground troops would have inflicted a second Iraq on the Middle East, all in the name of defending the conquest of the first he had once opposed.

Nato and Russia

The expansion of Nato membership into Eastern Europe to the borders of Russia was the geopolitical context of Blair’s very first illegal war on Serbia in 1999. Significantly, the war saw Nato’s very first ‘out-of-area’ operations. Corbyn opposed it as well as the expansion of Nato which later lay behind the war in Ukraine and Putin’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea. He understood something of the interrelated nature of these events when he once noted that ‘Nato expansion and Russian expansion – one leads to the other, and one reflects the other’.

Starmer’s attitude to these issues can be gleaned from his appointment of Lisa Nandy as shadow foreign secretary. During the leadership campaign, she condemned Corbyn’s attitude to Russia for standing ‘with the Russian government, and not with the people it oppresses, who suffer poverty and discrimination’. This was a gross misrepresentation of Corbyn’s position, but its significance is the reassuring message it sends to the establishment, especially its military wing.

We can therefore expect Nandy’s Cold War-style rhetoric to go hand in hand with support for both continued Nato expansion and UK military expenditure in excess of Nato’s 2% of GDP guideline. In addition, in 2016, Starmer voted to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost estimated by CND to be in the region of £205 billion. And although on that occasion Nandy voted against renewal, she has since told The Times that she would press the nuclear button, on the self-defeating basis that the ‘first job of any government is to keep its people safe’. Her opposition to Trident renewal is therefore unlikely to survive her elevation to the shadow cabinet.

The spirit of Blairism

Foreign policy has never been Labour’s strong point. The Attlee government paved the way for both the partition of India, giving rise to the Kashmir question, and the establishment of Israel after the mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. It was central to the formation of Nato, secretly developed the country’s first nuclear weapons, and positioned the UK as the loyal lieutenant of the US, not least by dutifully joining the Korean War.

Blair’s foreign policy represented a ruthless reaffirmation of this Labour tradition as the West’s ambitions expanded in the wake of the Cold War and Russia’s collapse as an imperial power of global weight. Corbyn offered a break with this tradition, inspiring many, but incurring the wrath of the establishment both inside and outside the Party. Starmer now seeks to expunge the very memory of this break. Guided by the spirit of Blairism, his foreign policy is certain to be one the Foreign Office will be only too gratified to call its own.

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Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).