Foreign Policy: The View From Oxford University Labour Club

Alex Chalmers, writing from OULC

The Labour Party’s approach to foreign policy is in a state of flux. After attending Labour Party conference, the myriad of paradoxes is even more apparent. On the one hand, the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared his unwavering opposition to Trident during his keynote address to rapturous applause, whilst the conference unanimously approved the ‘Britain in the World’ policy report that committed Labour to a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, the like of which sounds suspiciously like Trident. The Shadow Cabinet is similarly divided with rumours circulating that Maria Eagle, Hilary Benn, and Andy Burnham (shadow defence secretary, shadow foreign secretary, and shadow home secretary, respectively) would resign if Labour abandoned Trident. 

A similar contradiction is in evidence with regards to Labour’s approach to authoritarian regimes. During the leadership election, our new leader called for the imposition of sanctions on governments with a poor approach to LGBTQ rights. So far, so worthy. His other policy stances, however, muddy the waters. Vladimir Putin of Russia sees no distinction between gay men and paedophiles and has taken the abhorrent step of banning trans people from driving on the grounds that they are mentally unstable, whilst the Iranian regime continues to punish homosexuality with death, and yet Mr Corbyn has called for the relaxation of sanctions on both and expressed active support for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. During his keynote address, Jeremy Corbyn claimed that he had always opposed dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, but his appearances on Russia Today and Iranian state channel Press TV are widely known. His descriptions of Hamas and Hezbollah as his ‘friends’ are not made any more palatable by his supporters’ unconvincing attempts to spin them as engagement in some kind of peace process. 

The third and final core contradiction lies in party policy over Europe. Chuka Umunna resigned from the Shadow Cabinet after failing to obtain any assurances that Labour would campaign for an ‘In’ vote come what may. Hilary Benn then subsequently obtained these reassurances, but again in his main speech, Jeremy Corbyn appeared to row back on this, claiming that Labour would campaign in support of the seemingly nebulous concept of a ‘social Europe’.

opposition to Trident cannot become party policy”

The above is not intended as some kind of character assassination or an attempt to besmirch the new leader’s name, it is simply a reflection of the building existential crisis at the heart of Labour Party’s approach to foreign policy and the lack of joined-up thinking that has unsurprisingly accompanied the cohabitation between a broadly social democratic shadow cabinet and a hard left leader. Each of these contradictions needs to and can be resolved if the Labour Party is to have any hope of achieving a coherent foreign policy. Some of these decisions will be tough for those who joined the Labour Party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but at the same time, it will be more than possible to preserve an important space for the values of peace, human rights, and tolerance that he expressed with such energy in his speech.

Firstly, and perhaps most painfully, opposition to Trident cannot become party policy. Conference has already indirectly consented to its renewal and the government’s majority almost guarantees that renewal will happen. An energetic campaign against this is doomed to failure, will alienate a number of major trade unions whose workers depend on the maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and will allow the right to claim that their dramatic claims with regards to Labour and national security have been vindicated. Nevertheless, it will be impossible to dragoon many life-long committed unilateralists into the ‘No’ lobby, so a free vote seems by far the most logical approach to take.

The second contradiction is much easier to solve. Few beyond a small core of obsessive ‘anti-imperialists’ who will act as cheerleaders for any regime hostile to western liberal democracy feel a shred of sympathy for Russia. In return for Jeremy Corbyn rowing back on his ill-judged words and support for Russia, it would not be unreasonable to ask those those on the right of the party who in the past have avoided condemning the appalling human rights situation in Saudi Arabia due to ongoing military ties to change their attitude, a unifying compromise that also makes the party look credible when it speaks about solidarity and universal human rights.

the Labour Party cannot afford to argue for a policy of complete non-intervention in Syria”

In the same spirit, the party must work to delay the gradual lifting of sanctions contained in the Iran nuclear deal; Labour positioning itself as the party defending universal human rights by delaying the influx of money and weaponry to a country that has shown no sign of softening its authoritarian character is both politically and morally consistent. In the same way, the Labour Party cannot afford to argue for a policy of complete non-intervention in Syria. Intervention can sometimes have undesirable consequences, whether it be in lives lost or an escalation of violence, but from a purely strategic standpoint, it makes little logical sense to strike ISIS in Iraq, but not in Syria. Moreover, with Russia aiding Assad, who himself is tacitly co-operating with ISIS, the west has a moral as well as a strategic obligation to help protect the territory gained by the mainstream, moderate rebels.

To address the final contradiction, the Labour left needs to drop this idea that if David Cameron manages in any renegotiations to secure an opt-out from measures that protect workers and consumers, then it should push for an ‘Out’ vote. Britain’s departure from the EU would not restore such protections, so it makes far more sense to hold on to the variety of benefits EU membership provides, whilst focusing on a general election victory with a manifesto commitment to restore any protections that have been lost. 

This set of compromises goes far beyond a pragmatic attempt to preserve fragile party unity. Such an attempt to find areas of common ground between the leadership and the shadow cabinet, as well as the left and right of the Parliamentary Labour Party, arrives at a vision that manages to merge both a strong support for universal human rights as well as a pragmatic approach to difficult geopolitical questions. Those who joined the party during the leadership election hoping for a revolution will have to accept that the laws of international politics rarely change so suddenly.