Labour’s post-war greats, Attlee and Bevin, defined progressive patriotism. The party needs that spirit now

by Mike Gapes

This piece is part of a new book “Labour’s reset: the path back to power” which Uncut will be launching at Labour conference . The book looks at the barriers for voters in picking Labour, what the party can do in opposition to tackle these issues and the type of policy platform that would attract switchers to Labour at the election.

In the eleven years since Labour was last in government, the UK and the world have seen a significant shift towards nationalist, inward looking policies.  There has been weakening of global multilateral institutions.  UK influence in the world and our “soft power” has been reduced principally by the self-harm of a hard Brexit and the acrimonious wrangling about the Northern Ireland Protocol.  But far more significant for the future of the world have been changes brought about by developments in the United States, as it moves erratically away from a global interventionist role; and by the continuing economic, and military rise of the Chinese Party/State with its authoritarian model and “Belt and Road” imperialism; by the turmoil in the Arab and Muslim world; the massive impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic, particularly in largely unvaccinated Latin America and Africa; and the accelerating and destructive impact of global warming.

Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin played a decisive role in creating the institutions of the modern era including the United Nations, with a permanent UK seat on the Security Council, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. Those international institutions and others like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, established after the Second World War, are now under severe challenge.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty years ago and the ending of the Warsaw Pact, the Atlantic Alliance was successfully transformed from a Cold War defence institution into a political entity, now recognised as a regional security organisation by the United Nations. NATO enlarged to include the former GDR, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Many other countries worldwide including EU members Sweden, Finland, Austria, Malta and the Irish Republic have partnership arrangements with NATO.

NATO remains vital for peace and security in Europe. After the Trump shock, new US President Joe Biden claimed that “America is back’. His words provided reassurance but Biden’s betrayal of the women of Afghanistan has caused consternation amongst US allies worldwide.  Frontline NATO countries like Poland and the Baltic States face increasing cyber threats and aggressive behaviour by Putin’s Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere. It is no longer just France which questions whether Europe can depend upon the United States indefinitely for extended deterrence of Russian aggression.

Although the UK has left the European Union it could still act as an important close partner to it on defence, security and foreign policy. But the Johnson Vote Leave government has shown no interest in doing that.   Closer formal institutional co-operation between the EU and NATO remains blocked due to the longstanding divisions between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.

Labour should reflect on the legacy of its patriotic, internationalist and humanitarian interventionist traditions.

As well as standing firm against the threat of Stalinist Communism in Europe and supporting the Berlin airlift, the Attlee Labour government also supported the United Nations military intervention to stop and repulse the Communist advance in Korea, without which there would be no prosperous, dynamic and democratic South Korea today.

Labour in government can make a difference.

The Blair government said it would introduce “an ethical dimension” to UK foreign policy. (Not “an ethical foreign policy” as is sometimes wrongly claimed). It  immediately rejoined UNESCO; it established a separate Department for International Development; it  doubled the aid budget; it  introduced an annual Human Rights report; it introduced transparency and Quarterly Reports to Parliament on Arms Exports; it signed the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines;  and  played a major role in getting the Arms Trade Treaty, limiting small arms. It also introduced the Armed Forces Covenant. And the Blair Government intervened to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and to restore democratic government in Sierra Leone.  A big majority in Parliament voted for the UN  backed intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11,  and for the controversial intervention in Iraq, which removed the Baathist Fascist Saddam regime.    The record of the Blair and Brown Governments on foreign, defence and aid policies overall was a good one. But regrettably many party members will not be aware of this because the last two leaders failed to defend that record and allowed Labour opponents to define the terms of debate. Ed Miliband misguidedly adopted a “Year Zero” approach in 2010 and of course Jeremy Corbyn was only interested in trashing that record and focusing on Iraq, Iraq, Iraq (and Palestine).

In the last decade the international community, including the Labour leadership, failed the Syrian people when they desperately needed humanitarian intervention, safe corridors and No Fly Zones. Instead they got Islamist terror, Russian bombing and Iranian militias as millions were displaced or forced to flee as refugees.

During the Labour leadership campaign Keir Starmer gave firm commitments to root out antisemitism, but on foreign, defence and security policy he had little to say. And what little he did say is very worrying for those of us who support humanitarian intervention against ethnic cleansing and genocide and believe that the international community has a moral duty and a responsibility to protect vulnerable and oppressed people.

Starmer’s ten pledges, were crafted to win support from the Corbynite left, all he said on foreign policy was this:

Promote peace and human rights”

No more illegal wars. Introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Review all UK arms sales and make us a force for international peace and justice.”

“Illegal wars” were undefined presumably to send a dog whistle to the opponents of the controversial but not illegal intervention in Iraq.  And “Prevention of Military intervention” could have ruled out intervention in Sierra Leone or Kosovo.

His rival Lisa Nandy was far more outspoken in challenging the Corbynite past, including supporting humanitarian intervention.

Following his decisive victory Starmer appointed Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary, and John Healey as Shadow Defence Secretary.

Corbyn had been the Chair of the “Stop the War” (or more accurately Stop the West) Coalition.  He had appointed pro Putin journalist Seumas Milne and ex  Communist Andrew Murray as his key advisers.   Lisa Nandy has said “we got it wrong on Russia” and the Labour attitude to Putin’s Russia has changed most dramatically.

Nandy and Stephen Kinnock have also been outspoken on China,  expressing strong support for Hong Kong democrats,  and for Magnitsky sanctions on Communist Chinese officials over the appalling crimes being carried out against the Muslim Uighurs .

In June 2020, Labour sent out documents as part of its Policy Review consultation. The document entitled “Championing Internationalism in the post Coronavirus world” was very short, just seven pages. It says very little.  ” Across the world, conflicts continue unabated in fragile states….such as in Syria, Yemen and Libya”…..”there are unresolved political tensions where human security and civil liberties are regularly by passed, such as in Kashmir, Hong Kong, Venezuela and Iran.”

“There has been a regression of international law and respect for human life such as the planned annexation of the occupied West Bank and the plight of the Uigurs and the Rohingya.”

There was, incredibly, no mention of NATO at all, no reference to levels of defence spending, no reference to Trident or nuclear deterrence, and no direct reference to the defence industry or to arms exports only this ” we must find a way to better utilise…the expertise of our worker forces, trades unions, and British defence manufacturers for the benefit of partners around the world”.

There was no Party conference in 2020 due to Coronavirus.  An interim report of the International Policy Commission was published in December 2020.  And two subsequent reports on Veterans and Gender Equality in Development.

The interim report added little detail to the initial document and once again failed to mention NATO at all.  It simply said “cooperation with partner countries means progressing beyond old power and trade relationships to a new footing of equal partnership “

Submissions to the Policy Review from members, local parties and affiliates closed on 20 July 2021.  I understand that the majority were on Palestine.

It is intended that the Commissions will present their reports to the September 2021 Conference.

A major test for Starmer and Nandy will be whether they can manage transition to a more nuanced and balanced view of the world. Their speeches in the special Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan were encouraging. It remains to be seen whether the leadership will now have the courage to raise some of the most important issues or simply avoid mentioning them again.

Many people who supported Corbyn’s “anti imperialist” “pro Peace” approach are still active in the Labour Party at all levels, including some on Starmer’s front bench.   They continue to defend what they see as the gains of the Corbyn era and will press Starmer on his pledge to be “a force for peace and justice”.

Throughout its history Labour always had tension between its trade union affiliates and left wing anti-military activists.  The Attlee Government introduced nuclear weapons,  which were maintained and updated under the governments of Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown. Corbyn had an uncomfortable, ‘keep but never use’, compromise with the trade unions and the Parliamentary party over Trident.  The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to support the Manifestos on which they were elected in 2015 and 2017 and to maintain four Trident submarines and a Continuous at Sea Deterrent.  The party should retain that policy alongside supporting further international negotiations for Strategic Arms Control and disarmament and renewed efforts to strengthen and uphold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Diaspora communities have come to have a big influence in Labour politics at local and Parliamentary levels. As a result some issues have become very divisive internally.  One of the most difficult is the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.  This is not a new problem for Labour. Keir Starmer initially attempted to move away from the simplistic anti Modi positioning of Corbyn, but had a hostile reaction from British Pakistani activists.  Fearing defeat in the Batley by-election, a “dog whistle” Labour leaflet, with a photograph of Johnson and Modi, was distributed. It may have helped there but it will now cause serious problems for Labour candidates when it is reproduced by the Conservatives in areas of the country where there are significant diaspora Hindu and Sikh communities. In my view it is unwise for a potential party of government to allow the need to win votes of minority diaspora local communities to shape its national position on complex foreign policy issues.

Under Corbyn and his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, the Labour front bench was silent on the crimes of Assad in Syria, and the malign role of Iran, whilst being outspoken against the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel.  These positions were very popular with some left-wing activists.  Saudi diplomats were even banned from attending the Party conference. Will that continue?

Corbyn had referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends. Labour under Starmer has already voted for a complete ban on Hezbollah in the UK. But there are no signs yet that it will similarly distance itself from the homophobic terrorists of Hamas.  Several Labour MPs including members of Starmer’s front bench have appeared on platforms alongside prominent Hamas supporters and BDS activists in recent months.

The Corbyn leadership had Palestinian flags distributed and waved in the Party Conference hall during the international debate in 2018.  Although she has been a leading figure in the Palestine Solidarity campaign, and called for a boycott of goods from West Bank settlements, Lisa Nandy said she is opposed to the call for BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – against Israel itself.  Corbyn never visited Israel. Following the change of government in Israel and the signing of the Abraham accords by which several Arab countries, including the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco have now recognised Israel and established diplomatic relations there is a new diplomatic momentum in the region. Labour has a longstanding policy of support for a negotiated two states solution of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure and internationally recognised Israel.  It has recently reaffirmed that it “remains committed to formally recognising The State of Palestine”.

The Labour leadership should now also work to improve relations with Israel with an early post Covid lockdown visit by Keir Starmer.

What attitude will Labour take to the recent events in Tunisia, the ongoing civil war in Libya, and to the repressive policies of the Governments of Egypt and Turkey?  Following the US and UK withdrawal from Afghanistan, does Labour support a continuing UK presence in democratic Iraq ?  Does Labour support the UK bases in the Gulf including Bahrain ? What is the current Labour view of Iran?  There is no sign yet that Labour has moved away from Corbyn’s one sided approach to the conflict in Yemen.  It has maintained a policy of opposition to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but its policy statements do not condemn the Houthis and their Iranian backers. Similarly Labour official policy is silent on its attitude to sanctions on Iran or other measures following  the continuing Iranian breach of the Non Proliferation Treaty and JCPOA.

The post COVID economic crisis may lead to demands for a reduction in military spending.  Labour has said it will restore the Aid budget to 0.7% of national income. But will it also remain committed to the 2% NATO target ?

Since he became leader Starmer has said almost nothing about Brexit, (apart from mistakenly supporting Johnson’s terrible Withdrawal Agreement deal). But the crisis in Northern Ireland and the economic impact of Long Brexit is not something Labour can ignore. Labour should support closer economic relations for the whole UK with the European Single Market which might in time lead to a formal relationship like Switzerland or Norway.   It should say loudly and clearly that it will have very close Foreign policy, Defence and security cooperation with the EU, through links to Permanent Structured Co-operation (PESCO) and closer bilateral defence arrangements with France, the Netherlands and others.   It was easy for Labour under Corbyn to take an anti-Trump position on Foreign policy but the Biden Presidency will pose more difficult challenges for both government and opposition. The US will place demands on its partners as it seeks to reshape its own military and political alliances for the coming decades to combat the rise of an assertive China. How will Starmer and his team position Labour on these future debates?

It is very easy to have a foreign policy based on generalised platitudes and aspirations for democracy and human rights. Or an empty slogan like the Tories’ “Global Britain”.  It is a very different thing to be in government and navigate diplomatic relations and make hard choices with 195 countries, many of which are not democracies, and do not share our values, and which may have internally repressive policies with which we strongly disagree. The UK, outside the EU, will need significant allies and partners as it faces these challenges.

The Corbyn era was the low point of Labour foreign and defence policy.

I have been encouraged by what Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy and others have said and done on some issues so far.  But there is a very long way to go to return Labour to having a progressive, patriotic foreign and defence policy which will restore the trust and confidence of the British people.

Mike Gapes was Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Ilford South 1992-2019 and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee 2005-2010


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