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. Dee

    “But Jeremy also opposed the UN-authorised interventions in Afghanistan, Libya and action to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo”

    This mantra is tiresome and frankly vulgar.

  2. DemSoc93

    Since the editorial line of LFF seems to be anti-Corbyn (there have been countless articles against him), who do you back LFF? Who do you think socialists should vote for?

    Isn’t there a case for lending critical support to Corbyn, i.e. you agree with him on pretty much everything but foreign policy? Indeed, one could argue, as groups like AWL (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) do, that there’s a socialist case for intervening against some people who are just as anti-workers’ rights, anti-human rights, etc. as the West (if not even rabidly more so). Though they have their own socialist views on foreign policy which oppose Islamism and don’t fall into the trap of supporting everyone who is anti-Western, they still support Corbyn.

    We aren’t electing his foreign policy, we’re electing him as leader. He has pledged to allow greater internal democracy in the party and in policy-making. You aren’t voting to make every single one of Jeremy Corbyn’s personal views policy, you’re voting for the party to become a participatory mass movement. If you oppose Jeremy’s foreign policy views and consider yourself a socialist, vote for him as leader and when the party becomes the more democratic structure he’s promising, put across the case that there are people out there worse than NATO.

    Under the other three candidates, policy (including foreign policy) will continue to be something handed down from above. Only under Jeremy, even if you disagree with his personal views in the area of foreign policy, will members have any say over policy. No one is saying Jeremy is perfect, but he’s a damn sight better than the other three lukewarm, unenthusiastic PPE graduates.

  3. Paul Frame

    The UN doesn’t need an increase in its powers. Have a look at the charter and you’ll see it already has them.

    Article 43

    All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.

    Such agreement or agreements shall govern the numbers and types of forces, their degree of readiness and general location, and the nature of the facilities and assistance to be provided.

    The agreement or agreements shall be negotiated as soon as possible on the initiative of the Security Council. They shall be concluded between the Security Council and Members or between the Security Council and groups of Members and shall be subject to ratification by the signatory states in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.

  4. Paul Frame

    and Article 45:

    Article 45

    In order to enable the United Nations to take urgent military measures, Members shall hold immediately available national air-force contingents for combined international enforcement action. The strength and degree of readiness of these contingents and plans for their combined action shall be determined within the limits laid down in the special agreement or agreements referred to in Article 43, by the Security Council with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee.

  5. Paul Frame

    Here’s the problem of the UN. It’s designed to try and prevent world war three as fought in 1914-1918 and 1937-1945.

    It’s not a great deal of help in civil wars or “small” regional wars. It’s certainly not a great deal of help if any of the permanent five are involved in a conflict, as they will veto any proposed action taken by the UN Security Council.

    So you then get the situation we have in Syria where Russia will veto any action (such as deploying peace-keepers to protect safe havens or a no-fly zone) because they perceive it to threaten Russia’s interests.

    So how do you then try and MULTILATERALLY help Syrian civilians then?

    Would a coalition of France, UK and the US be multilateral for you?

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