Brexit and anti-semitism have been both named as the main reason for the splits. But these issues are linked by a broader, key foreign policy outlookby Andrew Gamble / March 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
Do the Labour MPs who resigned the whip to enlist in the Independent Group (TIG) stand for anything? We know what they are against—Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, or lack of it, over Brexit and anti-semitism. They also have disagreements with the Labour leader on economic policy: they don’t like proposals for nationalisation or the abolition of university fees. But those issues are not the real cause of the split, which has seen the former Labour MPs join forces with a handful of former Tories. The 2017 Labour manifesto promised little that anyone in the party could disagree with. It was an extension of Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto, and contained fewer frightening tax increases than previous efforts such as Neil Kinnock’s in 1992 or Harold Wilson’s in 1974.
But there is another issue which explains the split, and links Brexit and anti-semitism. Corbyn presents himself as building on Clement Attlee’s domestic legacy. But in foreign policy he certainly isn’t following Attlee. After 1945 Labour was one of the architects of Nato and the post-war, rules-based international order. Support for the western alliance, and in particular the alliance with the US, was a priority for every subsequent Labour government. Only twice has Labour seriously questioned that priority—in the early 1980s and now. Both times it led to a split. Disagreements on economic policy can often be fudged. Disagreements on foreign policy are harder to resolve because they are rooted in different conceptions of Britain’s place in the world, which touch on profound aspects of identity.
Three foreign policy issues have propelled the split. The first is Brexit. Corbyn is a lifelong Eurosceptic who, even if less zealous than his mentor Tony Benn, voted against every European treaty he could and has described the EU as an empire from which Europeans should liberate themselves. Many of his closest advisers and allies want Britain out. A large majority of Labour voters, members and MPs want a second referendum, but Corbyn dragged his feet, unenthusiastically endorsing one only after TIG MPs left, in part because of his reluctance to give a lead. He has now, perhaps, moved just enough to keep the bulk of his party from open rebellion, but fighting Brexit is still a very low priority for him.
The division on Brexit is an aspect of a wider division on foreign policy. In its founding statement the Independent Group wrote that “Labour now pursues policies that would weaken our national security and accepts the narratives of states hostile to our country.” In the vote on 2nd December 2015 over UK participation in airstrikes on Syria, 66 Labour MPs defied Corbyn to vote for military action. Among them were almost all of the first members of the Independent Group. This is a major dividing line. Corbyn has been a strong critic of Nato and western military intervention. He is against the security arrangements, particularly the nuclear deterrent, maintained through the western alliance, and has been a consistent supporter of anti-western regimes. Pacifism and anti-imperialism have always been important strands within Labour but under Corbyn they are becoming dominant.
The row over anti-semitism is a third issue linked to this foreign policy divide. Why was anti-semitism not a big issue in Labour before Corbyn became leader? His supporters say because it is being used to attack him and has no substance; critics counter that anti-semitic abuse is real and is being used to drive Corbyn-sceptics out. But at its heart is a disagreement over what counts as anti-semitism, and what are legitimate ways to criticise Israel and its policy towards the occupied territories, which is indulged by its ally the US. Corbyn identifies strongly with the Palestinian cause. He is not a member of Labour Friends of Israel, but seven of Labour’s first nine defectors (including the non-TIG MP Ian Austin) were, and Joan Ryan was its chair.
The Independent Group, like the SDP before it, rejects the anti-western foreign policy that defines Corbyn. But what is the pro-western foreign policy it favours instead? Brexit and Trump are threatening to remove two pillars on which it has traditionally relied. When the multilateral rules-based order is attacked by the president of the US, the country that was its architect and main support for 70 years, it spells trouble. Trump’s policies have been erratic, but his preference for authoritarian regimes has been made plain, while his nativist “America First” rhetoric gives priority to US domestic interests over international commitments. Many hope that the Trump era is a passing blip, others are not so sure. The liberal international order—and US leadership in sustaining that order—may never be the same again. This leaves TIG with a dilemma. Brexit will severely impair co-operation with the EU, which in any case is facing severe challenges. If the US is disengaging at the same time, finding a safe port in this storm is not going to be easy.