There are few issues that excite the opponents of Jeremy Corbyn inside the Labour Party so much as those of war and peace. They have been at the heart of many of the major flashpoints within the Parliamentary Labour Party [PLP], and within Parliament itself since the leadership election of 2015.
This was seen most clearly last December when the vote to bomb Syria became a central test of Corbyn’s position. During the debate in the House and elsewhere he was denounced by the media, by the right wing of his own party, and by the man who he had appointed as his foreign secretary, Hilary Benn. The rebellion in his own ranks was considerable despite the fact that opponents of this latest lurch in the war on terror included the majority of Labour members, the majority of its MPs, the majority of the shadow cabinet and the majority of Labour members of the House of Lords. All were obliged to listen to a debate where there were two summings up in favour of the intervention and none for the proposition to abstain from action. It was a drama where the shadow foreign secretary directly contradicted the opposition leader, making a speech that, in arguing for a new war, evoked the spirit of Churchill and the fight against Hitler.
Just three weeks before the vote, Benn had ruled out military intervention. But in the heightened atmosphere following the terrorist bombings in Paris at the Bataclan Stadium, pro intervention politicians pressed the question again, and this time succeeded. But what was particular about this volte face was, rather than focus on the issue of intervention itself, the debate was used as an excuse to attack Corbyn, who stuck to his long held anti war positions. At the same time, there was a concerted effort to blacken the reputation of those around Corbyn. The mass lobbying of MPs by Stop the War and Momentum was very successful, but was denounced as bullying. A peaceful demonstration that ended outside Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy’s office was widely reported on media as having gone to her house, then to her office where it frightened her staff. The implication was that the demo had been intentionally intimidating. In fact, the demo was totally peaceful; it never went to Creasy’s house, but did go to her office long after it was closed, when there was no staff there to be frightened. It took the BBC nine months to admit that its reporting was wrong. By which time the narrative of a violent bunch of intimidating anti-war protestors bullying a cowering MP and her staff had concretized.
There has been evidence of the weaponisation of issues concerning war, peace and foreign policy by Corbyn’s enemies since his election: the Syria vote; the vote on Trident in July 2016 which changed absolutely nothing but which was staged to cause the maximum discomfort to him and his team; the question whether he would go to war with Russia if another NATO member was attacked; the constant attempts to link his support for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Even on the day of the publication of the Chilcot report, a day when Corbyn’s politics on Iraq were vindicated and Tony Blair’s reputation sank, unbelievably, to a new low, Corbyn was heckled by a member of his own party in parliament, Ian Austin, and called a ‘disgrace’.
That these barbs and campaigns have been so unsuccessful in denting Corbyn’s support within the Constituency Labour Party [CLP] demonstrates some difficult truths for those on Labour’s right.
The first of these is that the policies he espouses are popular on the left generally, and among wide sections of British society. There are significant sections of public opinion who support the Palestinians, oppose British military intervention in other countries, and are opposed to Trident replacement. The legacy of Iraq continues to play its part, as Chilcot demonstrated. The sense that this was an illegal war, that Blair lied, and that the war created a lot of the chaos we now see in the Middle East, runs very deep.
The second important fact to note is that Jeremy Corbyn’s record as an anti war and anti nuclear campaigner, and his campaigns on other areas of foreign policy, all played a major contributing part in the upsurge of support for him last year, and they continue to do so. He was known as a principled campaigner who spoke at the founding meeting of Stop the War Coalition and was its chair for several years before becoming leader; as a lifelong supporter of CND; as a campaigner around a range of international questions. He is a strong supporter of justice for the Palestinians, and has visited Palestine on a number of occasions. When Hugo Chavez visited London, Corbyn was a key figure at events in his support, and his campaigning over Latin America is extensive. As a supporter of Liberation (previously the Movement for Colonial Freedom) he has opposed colonialism across the world and has taken up cases as diverse as the Kenyans fighting for compensation over British atrocities during the Mau Mau uprising, to the Diego Garcia islanders driven from their homes by a military base. He was always identified with the campaign against apartheid.
So Jeremy Corbyn won the election not just because he was a well-known left wing MP, the closest of all of them to the late Tony Benn, who shared many of his priorities, but because he was identified with so many causes, especially in opposition to war, but also in the struggles against racism, colonialism and imperialism. This has often involved widespread opposition to government policy, both Labour and Tory.
This long-standing commitment to strongly held beliefs appeals to many young people, who see in him a principled politician who has held on to his views despite the prevailing ideologies, and who continues to do so. It also appeals to older people, many of whom left Labour under Blair, especially over Iraq, and who are now rejoining in large numbers.
In the light of this it is perhaps easier to understand the anguish of those like Ian Austin who see a leader of their party who is anti war, anti nuclear weapons and represents a totally different approach to foreign policy than his predecessors. It is of course a rejection of Blairism, not just at the level of domestic austerity policies but of his whole pro US, pro imperial stance, which saw him appointed envoy for peace in the Middle East as a reward for his devastating years as prime minister.
But this isn’t just a break from Blair, but from the traditional Labour Party policy. The postwar Attlee government is often alluded to today as the most successful Labour government. Its domestic agenda between 1945-50 created the NHS, nationalised industry and set the foundations of the welfare state. Its foreign policy record, however, is often overlooked and was much less distinguished. It defended the British Empire in most places, presided over the transition to Indian independence resulting in the bloody Partition. It intervened militarily in Malaya, sent troops to Korea and was fully in support of the new Cold War agenda espoused by the US. The government, despite straitened economic conditions after the Second World War, was determined to develop its own nuclear weapons to maintain Britain’s world role. The right winger Ernest Bevin talked about developing a nuclear bomb with ‘a bloody great Union Jack on it’.
It is this tradition that tends to represent the views of the Labour leadership. For example, Blairite MP Chuka Umunna said recently that he was proud of the tradition which created NATO and kept the peace for 70 years _ a position which omits all mention of wars in Europe, such as in the former Yugoslavia, let alone colonial wars elsewhere and the more recent interventions in the Middle East. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn presents himself as a rupture from this status quo. He represents the tradition of protest against war and weapons -a view nonetheless shared by many of Labour’s members and supporters, but not most of its MPs.
Many within the party cannot accept the abandonment of this foreign policy that they have held so dear over decades. We can therefore expect major clashes over these questions in the future.
These clashes will come from sections of the PLP, deeply wedded to the Atlanticist and imperialist view of foreign policy, and a number of them involved with organisations such as Labour Friends of Israel or even the neocon Henry Jackson Society. But as we have already seen, the source of attacks on Corbyn are often much wider, including elements of the British military and the state, the media, and even the Israeli embassy, where Netanyahu’s former press spokesman Mark Regev now presides as ambassador.
The issues of foreign policy, which Corbyn made his name opposing, remain centre stage in our current political debates. The intervention in Syria by the major world and regional powers is likely to guarantee prolonged war. At the same time, a survey of recent policies made of unedifying reading: the damning parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee report into the bombing of Libya five years ago admits that David Cameron’s reasons for bombing was regime change, not a humanitarian solution. Chilcot has made clear the willful and mendacious role of Blair, amongst many, over Iraq. This is hardly a good record for two out of the last three British ex-prime ministers; and another indication as to why Jeremy Corbyn is a much welcome alternative.
If the conflict in the Middle East seems intractable, one reason for this is the continued support by the West for two key states there, Saudi Arabia and Israel; both important customers of the western arms trade. Since Margaret Thatcher’s infamous al-Yamamah arms deal back in the 1980s, British governments, arms companies and the Saudis have been closely intertwined, to such an extent that when the Saudi king died, the British government ordered public buildings to fly their flags at half mast. The present Saudi air onslaught on the people of Yemen has been with the close aid of British military, using arms supplied from Britain. This has been largely unremarked on by the British media.
Support for Israel from successive governments has again been unwavering, despite the siege and bombing of Gaza, the treatment of the Palestinians and the encroachment onto more and more territory through illegal settlements. These policies have built an unprecedented level of support among British trade unionists, the left and faith groups for the Palestinians.
In his opposition to these policies of legitimized violence and compromised deals, Jeremy Corbyn’s policies chime more closely with public opinion than those of the MPs and journalists who deride him. Their only response is to vilify him and those he associates with. Guilt by association: they are terrorist sympathisers, anti-semites, haters of the west, pro-Russian. Corbyn himself is portrayed as weak when he refuses to ‘push the button’ in order to annihilate whole cities in other parts of the world.
There are those on the left who would prefer to avoid these issues in the hope that sticking to a domestic policy agenda might avoid such vilification. Some on the left even argue that Corbyn should soften on or downplay some of these issues. But the world is hurtling towards more conflict, not less. Whether this is the New Cold War in Eastern Europe and NATO expansion, the tensions in Korea over nuclear testing, the incidence of ‘soft coups’ in Latin America, the growth of nationalism in the Balkans, the wars in Africa and the Middle East, foreign policy is not going to slip down the agenda any time soon.
Nor should it do. In 1997 Tony Blair’s foreign secretary,, Robin Cook, talked about the possibility of an ‘ethical foreign policy’. To Cook’s chagrin that government delivered the opposite,. Today Corbyn has the chance to develop a genuinely ethical foreign policy. But it will mean confronting Britain’s imperial past and its imperialist and militarist present. It will mean insisting on spending on welfare, not defense. On abandoning the obsolete nuclear ‘deterrent’. On being unashamed to demand justice for the Palestinians. On categorically stating a policy of withdrawal of all British troops from foreign interventions. On opposing NATO aggression and expansion.
The left needs to take these arguments on, and own them. Many of them are already subscribed to by significant numbers of people, and it is possible to win much larger sections of society to them. They are, after all, about the future of the planet and of the safety and welfare of millions of people. The left around Corbyn also needs to connect with and build the movements that have done so much to influence public opinion and to mobilise on a mass scale, whether over war, Palestine or nuclear weapons.
In Jeremy Corbyn we have a Labour leader more knowledgeable about foreign affairs, more sympathetic to those who suffer from imperialism, and more acutely aware of inequality across the world than any of his recent predecessors. This is a turning point in the history of Labour, that’s why the Blairites, the media and the wider establishment are fighting so desperately against him.