What would a Jeremy Corbyn foreign policy mean for Labour?

Labour members should reflect on the legacy of Attlee and our humanitarian interventionist traditions

NATO intervention in Kosovo helped put an end to ethnic cleansing

Jeremy Corbyn and I serve together on the Executive Committee of the British Group of the Inter Parliamentary Union. Although I do not share his one sided view of Middle East policy, his friendship with Hamas and Hezbollah, or his rose tinted attitude to the government of Venezuela, there are issues on which we do agree, including support for women’s rights, LGBT rights and opposition to the death penalty.

We were both Labour candidates in the General Election of 1983. Jeremy was elected to Parliament for the safe inner London constituency of Islington North and began his 32 years as a rebellious left-wing backbencher. I was the defeated candidate in the outer London suburban of Ilford North.

Despite the civil war within the party following our 1979 defeat, the 1981 Special Conference and the SDP split, there was a great deal of enthusiasm in 1983 among the party rank and file.

Although we did limited canvassing, in Ilford North we had enthusiastic crowds around our campaign street stalls, big contingents on the huge CND marches and anti-Cruse missile protests encircling Greenham Common. Thousands came to our Labour rallies during the campaign to hear Michael Foot, deputy leader Denis Healey and others.

My election material was firmly in line with party policy as set out in the campaign document, The New Hope for Britain, which had hurriedly been agreed as the election manifesto by an exhausted NEC. Labour would withdraw from the European Economic Community (without a referendum), unilaterally scrap Trident and remove all US nuclear weapons and bases – whilst staying in NATO.

Although I privately knew I would not win it came as a great disappointment to many activists when we suffered a terrible defeat. Labour’s vote dropped by 8,345. The Conservative majority went up from 7,195 to 11,201. With just 10,841 votes, I only just kept second place over an SDP candidate who had done almost no campaigning. Worse still, marginal neighbouring Ilford South remained firmly in Conservative hands.

Jeremy Corbyn has made clear in numerous speeches and articles over the years that he remains committed to the policies on which he was first elected and on which Labour was resoundingly defeated in 1983. Indeed, he would go further: Labour has always, even in our brief unilateralist period, been pro-NATO, but Jeremy has consistently opposed NATO membership.

He recently said that Poland should not have been allowed to join NATO. He says its expansion to other democratic ex-Warsaw Pact countries was a mistake. He blames the USA and NATO rather than Putin’s imperialistic Russia for the crisis in Ukraine.

Labour has been here before. At the 1935 Party conference the great transport union leader Ernest Bevin denounced the pacifist George Lansbury over his opposition to possible League of Nations military action against Italian imperialism in Abyssinia. Lansbury resigned and eventually the Parliamentary Party elected Major Clement Attlee as interim Leader.

It was under prime minister Attlee and foreign secretary Bevin that the 1945 Labour government, in co-operation with the United States, played a decisive role in creating the institutions of the modern era, including the United Nations and NATO. It also ensured that Britain had its own independent nuclear deterrent. Britain also played a vital role supporting the United Nations forces in the Korean War.

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have made much of his opposition to the Iraq War and military action in Syria. But Jeremy also opposed the UN-authorised interventions in Afghanistan and Libya, and action to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Labour members should reflect on the legacy of Attlee and our patriotic, internationalist and humanitarian interventionist traditions.

Although Jeremy Corbyn was personally successful in 1983, many other Labour candidates were not. If Jeremy becomes Labour leader next month his anti-nuclear, anti-NATO, anti-American, anti-interventionist and Eurosceptic message will be welcomed by some in this country and by some abroad. But it is unlikely to be welcomed by Kurdish and other anti Da’esh forces in Iraq, by anti-Assad democrats in Syria, by democratic Central European NATO states like Poland, or by Ukrainians.

Above all, though, it will be resoundingly rejected by the British people, and lead Labour in 2020 to an even worse defeat than we collectively suffered in 1983.

Mike Gapes has been Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Ilford South since 1992. He is a member and former chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee

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59 Responses to “What would a Jeremy Corbyn foreign policy mean for Labour?”

  1. Ross

    Fantastic course to do isn’t it! I recently graduated in History and Politics from Leicester.

    Your sentence sounds like the conclusions of many essays analysing Tony Blair’s justification for the 2003 Iraq war – ‘personal, ideologically based view of the world, rather than any sound understanding of the issues and adversaries Britain faces’.

  2. Paul Frame

    OK. Why does he oppose membership of a collective international security organisation that says an attack on one is an attack on all. Isn’t that an expression of international solidarity of the kind that socialists should want?

    Why does he oppose taking action against Bashar Al Asad, a man who has gassed his own people and regularly barrel bombs his own population?

    We should be involved in the middle east because we are a permanent member of the UN security council. Socialist President Hollande of France does not have a problem with this, or an independent nuclear deterrent.

    I want to help the civilians of Syria. I want a no-fly zone over the country to stop the barrel bomb attacks that disproportionately harm non-combatants. I want safe havens created for civilians that are protected by peacekeepers. Is that such a terrible thing to want?

  3. Asteri

    Mike Gapes: a prominent Liz Kendall supporter.

    This article is just another in a long line of Labour-right, internationalist, propaganda pieces. Firstly, Britain has always used NATO and its nuclear weapons for international ‘dick-swinging’ desperately trying to relive some glory days of empire by tagging along with the US. While Kosovo is the favourite liberal-intervention myth of all interventionists, Afghanistan was a failure that achieved nothing but negotiation with the Taliban, NATO lied about its intentions in Libya then turned it into a failed state. None of these escapades turned out well so why do you assume that the rest of the people mentioned here are waiting for on tenterhooks for the result of the Labour party leadership contest?

    As for NATO, Ireland, Switzerland, Cyprus and Austria are not NATO members, nor are Sweden and Finland who are right next to Russia during the Cold War, there was never any threat to these countries and there wasn’t since the 1990s until NATO began deliberately meddling in them while refusing to admit Russia as a member; so what would you expect?

    For the record the UN did authorise action in Afghanistan (the UN never recognised the Taliban regime in Kabul) but not in Kosovo where NATO just circumvented the UN all together and did the same in Libya, the UN never authorised what NATO did in Libya i.e arm a rebellion and oust the government. So, Corbyn opposed one UN authorised intervention and opposed two that weren’t legal, Hardly that terrible.

  4. DemSoc93

    This is actually one of the better (read: less hysterical articles) on Jeremy’s foreign policy position.

    First of all, should we really be proud of our role in the Korean War?

    Also, it’s a good tip not to post an article that invalidates your attempt to portray him as some kind of Putin fan: “Corbyn has been accused of failing to see the threat posed by the aggression of Russian president Vladimir Putin, but he makes clear that he is highly critical of him. “I am not an admirer or supporter of Putin’s foreign policy, or of Russian or anybody’s else’s expansion. But there has got to be some serious discussions about de-escalating the military crisis in central Europe. Nato expansion and Russian expansion – one leads to the other, and one reflects the other.””

    To me, he seems interested in peace but isn’t prepared to bomb his way to it. This is novel. That’s not always a wise course of action, but you’ve got to question the use of military intervention on a case by case basis. It’s not always right and it’s not always wrong. I think we’ve got to consider intervention, but not always by sticking our military oar in because sometimes this makes things worse. We have all these international bodies for arbitration but when it comes to conflict we don’t bother with them.

    Do I think bombing ISIS, ISIL or whatever we’re calling them will help? No, not in itself. I agree with Jeremy that we’ve got to isolate and starve them of weapons.

    Also, you said UN-authorised intervention in Kosovo: the link to the EDM said “led by NATO and the United States in the Spring of 1999, without any sanction of the United Nations Security Council”.

    And on the Kurds, I wonder if they’re still fans of intervention after Turkey went and intervened by bombing them and ISIS.

    I don’t accept this dichotomy of military intervention = “doing something”, looking for ways to peace that involve less/no collateral damage = “doing nothing”.

  5. Ross

    Okay to take your example on Syria, I completely agree that to save civilians from the horror that is Syria’s brutal regime under Assad is the right thing to do and want. I even believe that Saddam Hussein was a dreadful dictator who needed to be stopped. But I would want to see a wholesale increase of the powers of the United Nations and MULTILATERAL intervention sanctioned by it to deal with grave threats to human life and security such as these in the right way. As said I’m not completely behind Corbyn on this however I don’t see any other candidates, past Labour leaders or even the Tories advocating using more peacekeepers or taking any more tough steps other than to increase economic sanctions or fund rebel groups through the back door to which at that time we did not realise that half of them were al-Nusra later to affiliate to ISIS…so much for competent UK foreign policy eh?

    What this highlights is that principles though indispensable and primary, are only half of foreign policy. The other half is method and how to deal with a complex post-cold war international and the threats we may face from it. Yes we should be involved in the Middle East because of our seat on UNSC and yes we should do something about Syria – but the complex situations we face today are not solved by a. nuclear weapons as no major IR issue since the Cold War has required them and b. a collective security organisation which would rather just jump in on one side and fuel the conflict rather than work with the UN to bring both sides to the table and engage the issues (so much for international solidarity if NATO can’t work with the bastion of collective effort?)

    Corbyn’s policy is not based around an ignorance of these international issues, what he is proposing is a new method of dealing with these issues:

    “Britain needs to redefine its place in the world. We stand up against injustice wherever we find it, looking to build a more peaceful world through dialogue, cooperation and democracy.”

    Those last three words are crucial. Its still early days in what will be the party’s 2020 defence policy stance, our job at the moment isn’t to provide a comprehensive policy document on everything that is happening and may happen in the world, instead its a redefinition of the values that underpin our strategy and a realistic assessment of how we carry that out. I don’t see Kendall, Burnham or Cooper advocating any sort of refocus on how our party should see the world and our nation’s interests in any way other than the status quo which seems to be something like “just keep arming, hardening rhetoric and tightening our security state until the threat goes away” – threats don’t just go away until they are engaged but there is also the problem of not engaging with them in the right way i.e. unapproved and ill-calculated interventionism etc.

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