The fog of factional war still clouds Labour’s foreign policy

Jeremy Corbyn was liable to think “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” But so too is Keir Starmer

February 11, 2022
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Sooner or later, the Conservatives will oust Boris Johnson. After they do so, they will waste little time worrying about him. Oust and move on is the Tory way.

Maybe it’s the non-conformist roots that condemn Labour to something approaching the opposite: a solipsistic cycle of purging and purifying any residue of the previous regime. Through five long years before his final heavy defeat, Jeremy Corbyn seemed almost incapable of speaking up for the many social policy achievements of the Blair years because of his resentment of the man then in charge. Now Keir Starmer is remaking Labour’s foreign policy, very consciously, against one enemy—Jeremy Corbyn.

Admittedly, the immediate chance to do this was provided by someone else, namely Vladimir Putin, who is threatening Ukraine with invasion and has amassed an intimidating concentration of Russian forces along his own border and in Belarus. Following the unhappy logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” parts of the left are weirdly indulgent of this show of aggression because it aggravates the hated western alliance. Even before Corbyn became leader in 2015, some principled radical voices, such as Peter Tatchell, were warning against lapsing into that sort of trap.

But if Starmer has a serious and timely bone to pick with the Stop the War coalition (vice president, Jeremy Corbyn) on this one point, everything else in his love letter to Nato, published this week in the Guardian, seemed bizarrely anachronistic. From reading it, you would have no idea that just a few months ago the alliance walked away from a bloody 20-year campaign in abject failure, leaving a humanitarian crisis in its wake. But then neither “Afghanistan” nor indeed “Libya,” where the aftermath of the 2011 Nato-led intervention is no happier, rank among the 1,200 words that Starmer penned.

Nor indeed does “Iraq,” a war so divisive that many Nato members opposed it, leaving it to be unlawfully waged (that is according to Starmer’s own published view at the time) by George W Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” Another thing that you wouldn’t know from reading Starmer’s column—and yet something that he was, only two years ago, proud to recall—is that he had marched against that invasion in the giant protests organised by none other than Stop the War.

In an accompanying BBC interview, Starmer went beyond the traditional multilateral disarmament stance of the Labour right, and said he would “of course” be willing to use nuclear weapons in unspecified circumstances. For anyone who has thought seriously about human rights—and Starmer thought about little else in his early legal career—it is impossible to sincerely entertain the indiscriminate elimination of thousands of men, women and children as a matter of plain common sense. But this is not an intervention made in a spirit of pure high principle, but rather of political repositioning.

Repositioning vis-à-vis a changing world and the shifting opinions of the voters is something political leaders inevitably have to attend to: it’s hopeless to preach that they should not. What worries me about these latest manoeuvres, however, is that the tone hasn’t moved with a changing world enough, and indeed almost consciously aims for a Cold War echo.

Failure to mention what Nato has actually been up to the last 20 years is only the start of it. Starmer elides the nuclear-armed plutocrat gangsters of today’s Moscow with the Bolshevik ideologues of old—where post-war Labour leaders like Ernest Bevin “saw communism for what it was… Today’s Labour Party has the same clear-eyed view of the current regime in the Kremlin.” (As an aside, Bevin—who once gave a “Shylock vs the people” speech—is invoked without any disclaimer for his deep antisemitism, but this triggers little protest from the “muscular centrists” who fiercely denounced Corbyn’s failure, in an old book foreword, to highlight the same stain on the thinking of the Edwardian radical, JA Hobson). Closer to home, Starmer fails to take any account of how the political scene has moved on since the days of Attlee, Bevin, and even Blair.

Corbyn only became leader because because the self-professed “grown ups” of foreign policy were seen to have left the Middle East in flames. Moreover, 21st-century Labour still needs to worry about the loss of votes to other parties who understand this. The Greens are now a small but permanent presence who provide an alternative home for voters with pacifist leanings, and of course the anti-Trident SNP continues to clean up in Scotland in a way that still makes a path to majority Labour rule in Westminster pretty hard to see.

So, yes, Corbyn was vulnerable to the dismal logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” But so too is Starmer, as he lurches from his quarrel with Corbyn towards an uncritical love-in with the military alliance which his predecessor defined himself against.