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Wednesday 18 December 2019

How Labour got off lightly: some notes

Here is my piece for CapX followed by some notes on issues I didn't have the space to expand on, particularly the last two of the three questions I landed on which best illustrate Corbynite foreign policy.


On Salisbury and Syria, the Labour leadership got off lightly

16 December 2019

It is Friday April 13 2018 and Diane Abbott is on the Today programme. In a combative appearance with Nick Robinson her refusal to say whether Labour would ever approve UK military action overseas is what creates headlines. What gets overlooked is that she also says this: “What we believe beyond reasonable doubt is its [Russia’s] role in the poison gas attacks in Salisbury.”

This is just a month after the Salisbury attack. Abbott was definitive because she had seen the same “unprecedented levels of intelligence” that led 28 countries to evict Russian diplomats. Those expulsions by so many countries, even Hungary, had spooks back-slapping with satisfaction, according to the writer and security specialist Edward Lucas.

Yet two days after Abbott’s Today Show appearance, Jeremy Corbyn told the media that “if we are going to make a very, very clear assertion like that we have got to have the absolute evidence to do it”.

Six months later and Corbyn was still hedging his bets. How? His theory was that either Russia or someone else could be responsible, emphasis on the latter. Maybe they lost the poison somehow? That theory was why he wanted the UK to send a sample to Moscow. In Parliament that September, responding to Theresa May laying out what was a massive humiliation for the Russian government, that ‘Kremlin source’ theory was still there in his speech.

Throughout last summer Corbynite social media was awash with Salisbury conspiracy theories as they defended the great leader. You know who else in Summer 2018 was still questioning whether Russia was responsible for the attack in Salisbury? Donald Trump.

‘Corbyn destroyed by media smears’ the same people say, based on their belief that what was being reported in the ‘MSM’ were lies. Yet neither the ‘MSM’ nor the ‘deep state’ nor the Tory election machine ever really nailed quite how awful Corbyn was over Salisbury.

Edward Lucas says that when he gave evidence for the withheld Commons Committee Russia report he pointed out that after the initial expulsions of diplomats the UK had not countered the massive disinformation campaign well. Yet the role that the Leader of the Opposition played doesn’t figure. For some reason Corbyn’s role is not one that Lucas’ colleagues have picked up on either.

Nevertheless the voters didn’t need to know the reason why Corbyn was suggesting sending samples to Moscow, they just saw him saying stuff like that and formed their overwhelmingly negative opinions.

It wasn’t just on Salisbury that Labour got off lightly. A culture (which I took part in) of often gleefully panning for gold in Corbyn’s past meant that the present, what Labour were actually doing now, largely disappeared. Their apparent policy of not supporting the Syrian Civil Defence, the White Helmets, for example, was almost totally ignored. The ghastly Chris Williamson was not banished for supporting Assad’s fascist state, but, eventually for one incidence of anti-Semitism too many. The Labour take-up of the Integrity Initiative Russian disinfo Op became instead about Spanish antisemite Pedro BaƱos,

There are two other (never asked) policy questions which illustrate how, for all the claims of media bias, Labour’s foreign policy was not properly scrutinised.
The answer to both questions is, of course, no. Clearly no from the evidence of the past two years since Corbyn paid a visit to Chatham House in the last election and said that “the ‘bomb first, talk later’ approach to security has failed”. Nine months after that speech Emily Thornberry published a piece on the Middle East, that Corbyn plugged, which managed to not mention Assad. She proposed that the Syrian dictator stay in power and for UK taxpayers to pay for reconstruction. She attacked the White Helmets.

One of the things which I don’t think folks understand is that a very big reason the Corbynites are clinging on to the leadership for the time being is to defend their ‘anti-imperialist’ foreign policy agenda. Foreign policy looms large for the fans of the Stop Some Wars Coalition.

One of the most profound meanings of realignment internationally by Corbynism was likely exit entirely from the Socialist International and instead going with the sorts of left Latin American forces who themselves have failed to deal with chavismo and Cuban communism. Evo Morales welcomed as a hero to Downing Street?

Given the sheer number of outlandish and immoral positions the Corbyn team took on foreign policy, they really did get off lightly. If Labour are to move forwards as a potential party of government, their next leader needs to ditch the ‘anti-imperialist’ schtick and rediscover the party’s true internationalist heritage.



Did Labour support the UK training Ukrainian troops?

Not much has been said by Labour about Ukraine over the past four years. At Commons committee's Labour shadow foreign ministers and Labour MPs have said all the right things during the few debates on Ukraine, in one case with Khalid Mahmood pointedly conveying John McDonnell's concerns about the Ukrainian labour movement.

Corbyn has mentioned Ukraine twice in the Commons since he was elected leader. The last time was to say this after Russia seized two Ukrainian navy ships last year.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 3:43 pm, 17th December 2018  I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of her statement.  On Ukraine, as NATO has said, we need both sides to show restraint and de-escalate, with international law adhered to, including Russia’s allowing unhindered access to Ukraine’s ports on the sea of Azov.
(Citation: HC Deb, 17 December 2018, c529)
The very same words were used 3 weeks earlier by Mahmood, but this "both sides" line (and it was clearly the line from the party) is wrong, Nato never said that. Why would Nato be urging "restraint" on Ukraine?

So a mistake but a very telling one. It has recently been reported that when Donald Trump saw the joint Nato statement condemning the Russians for seizing these ships he didn't want to sign it and had to be persuaded.

It is not hard to imagine Corbyn doing the same and that the UK would not have joined others in condemning Russia's actions. Particularly given his history, such as this statement in parliament seven months before he was elected leader.

Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North  I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Defence how far the Government have really thought this thing through. Does he acknowledge that 75 trainers will be followed by 150 trainers, and that they will be followed by more and more? The gifting of weapons is being talked about, and we are now moving into a situation in which we are going to be in the conflict in Ukraine. NATO wants Ukraine as a member, contrary to everything that was agreed following the break-up of the Soviet Union on the non-alignment and independence of that country. Instead of upping the military ante, why will not the Government put huge efforts into trying to demilitarise Russian militarism and NATO expansionism, in order to bring about a longer-term sustainable peace in that area? The danger of getting involved in a hot war in central Europe has got a bit closer as a result of the Secretary of State’s statement today.      Link to this speech In context Individually     Tweet Share     Hansard source     (Citation: HC Deb, 25 February 2015, c328
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 25 February 2015, c328)
The thing is though, as Kyiv Post Editor Jack Laurenson told me before the election, Ukraine "would have adapted to a Corbyn government in London and found ways to work with them." After all, Ukraine has had practice with adapting. But it would be a marked change from the present where, Laurenson said, "Britain is arguably Ukraine's best friend in Europe."

"There are some concerns in Ukraine that Corbyn is a bit weak on foreign policy and defense, especially when it comes to the U.K. role in NATO, which Ukraine is trying to join. Some here worry that a Corbyn labour government may not stand with Ukraine in the same way U.K. governments have since the start of Russian aggression in 2014."

"Thankfully there are people behind Trump who have continued being helpful to Ukraine, while Trump himself has not. It is not being discussed in great detail, no. And Corbyn is largely unknown to the public here, I would say."

"But Ukrainians want to see hawkish foreign policy and a very strong stance on Russian aggression, especially from London, Washington, Brussels, Paris and Berlin."

In my experience Corbyn was largely unknown outside the UK and this fed through to there being only one piece of analysis by a think tank about possible Labour foreign policy. That report however did not mention the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry. Her statements, particularly on Syria, say far more about what might have been than Corbyn's past does. And, as with Mahmood, her reality was that she would repeat or defend whatever came down from the Leader's office and if she didn't she'd be briefed against. Her and Nia Griffith's gymnastics after Seumas Milne's comments to the Lobby after the Salisbury attack are a good example of this dynamic. I have a feeling more will come out about how this process played out.

I also spoke with Professor Alexander Clarkson, the well-known commentator on European affairs, who made a series of insightful points about the implications of a Corbyn government, most of whom were not mentioned during the election campaign.

"It's an interesting question in that the core assumption of European policy towards the UK, which is European Neighbourhood Policy rather than wider European foreign policy, is entirely constructed around the idea that the challenge the UK presents to the EU system is one based on Thatcherite principles," he said.

"So the core assumption on the EU level throughout has been that the UK will opt for deregulation, alignment with the US, greater dependence on the City, big talk about pressuring the EU through defence posturing but ultimately core acceptance of NATO as the foundations of UK and European security frameworks"

"So though they are aware of what Corbyn is and what he stands for, the EU institutions as well as EU states have not formulated a plan B for a statist, nationalising and neutralist UK that is likely to emerge under a Labour government."

"Corbyn would raise three core concerns, though he would be a relief in other ways. For the French, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Greeks i.e. the EU states whose military and geostrategic focus is on the Med, Maghreb, Sahel and Central Africa there would be great concern that a UK military that is beginning to play a role again in supporting key operations throughout that area for EU stabilisation and border control efforts would be pulled out again. The UK is on the cusp of contributing more helpful airlift capacity, so there would be questions about the UK's reliability whether in or out of the EU in defending collective EU borders."

"Now, there are a lot of valid critiques about the neo-imperial direction EU border policy is going towards, especially in how it is absorbing the logic of Italibya and Francafrique into a wider EU approach to the South. But if the UK pulls out of these efforts, it would also not be in a position to positively influence EU member state strategy towards states in the Med and Africa which come what may will see a substantial EU military and policing efforts for decades to come."

"The Baltic, Polish, Finnish, Romanian and Ukrainian nervousness about UK attitudes to Russia you are of course more aware of. A Corbyn government would effectively lead the Finns, Poles. Estonians and Ukrainians in particular to immediately write off the UK as a reliable partner in collective EU and NATO defence against Russia. A Corbyn government would have to make a big effort to visit those states and demonstrate that the UK will live up to NATO commitments to states in the alliance in the region and the blend of EU and NATO security support to Ukraine if the UK is not to see a rapid loss of trust from states across Eastern Europe whose help the Brits will need in any return to EU structures or if it is Brexit, negotiations for a treaty with the EU. Of course Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Ankara will use every opportunity to stoke the neutralist instincts of a Corbyn government to encourage the Brits to withdraw whatever they have left across the CEE regions."

"Finally, Corbyn's economic agenda will be seen with great concern by the Germans, Danes, Dutch, Austrians, Slovenians, Luxembourgers, French and Czechs. A policy focused on state and and extensive nationalisation will directly impact on major European businesses that have invested in UK infrastructure. Moreover an expansive attempt to use state aid to reshape the banking and industrial sectors if the UK leaves the EU will see enormous pressure from both corporations and state institutions in these states to ensure that this does not lead to state subsidy systems that are considered to give UK businesses an unfair boost in excluding EU competitors. This may not seem fair to the UK, but once the UK is out of the EU it would be considered fair game by EU states to put maximum pressure on London to keep it in line in terms of state aid just as it would be considered fair game to keep Tories in line over the City and deregulation."

"The paradox is in terms of Labour and European policy, that if the UK stayed in the EU McDonnell could well find a lot of allies for a Green New Deal based reform of state aid policy in France, Spain, Greece, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy. Even in Germany's Green Party and Linkspartei, though Fine Gael, the CDU/CSU, VVD and the Finnish and Baltic governments would be infuriated by this. A UK under Corbyn willing to build partnerships within the EU and find allies for his agenda has scope to shift a lot of EU state policy in key areas when it comes to developing state aid, nationalisation of certain sectors and much greater state regulation in others. If McDonnell can get Corbyn to see has agenda as not just changing Britain but also about changing Europe."

Unite union General Secretary Len McCluskey and Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza

Did Labour support EU sanctions on the Nicaraguan dictatorship

When the Venezuelan crisis hit the headlines again at the beginning of the year and Corbyn and his supporters were all suddenly, furiously tweeting and frothing away after an absence of interest for some time there was one body which they never mentioned. The EU.

The EU along with a slew of Latin American countries has been supporting the only dialogue game in town. It has quietly worked away but been absolutely critical to developments. If you look back at Emily Thornberry and her deputy Liz McInnes they talked about Mexico, they talked about Bolivia but they never mention the extant folks actually doing what they claim to be interested in - dialogue.

McInnes even at one point told the House of Commons that sanctions on Venezuela were a "war crime". On Cuba, 2019 has been the year of repressing the LGBT community yet hundreds of folks were proudly walking around the Labour conference with Cuba lanyards.

Nicaragua has had absolutely zero interest from Labour. I was one of a couple of hundred people (including some very lefty LatAm specialists) who wrote to Corbyn in December 2018 asking him to speak out for Nicaraguans and against the dictatorship. He never replied. Corbyn spoke in the House of Commons 210 times about the Sandinistas and Nicaragua. 210 times.

Phil Gunson from Crisis Group, who is British and lives in Caracas, told me:

"Jeremy Corbyn's vision of Latin America is derived from a Cold War-era, solidarity campaign way of thinking that aligns automatically with governments and political movements that oppose the United States. The continent is a lot more complicated than that. Corbyn's inability, for instance, to distance himself from the chavista government in Venezuela, despite its abysmal record on human rights and political freedoms, is symptomatic of this blinkered approach."

Some Bolivian Londoners from Action for Bolivia met Corbyn at the big Climate Strike protest back in September. He was pleasant in person, they told me, but the promised follow up never happened. This was before the Bolivian election, note, and they were telling him about the devastating fires - and the government's terrible response. Would Brazilians have had the same experience?

The EU's recent sanctions on Nicaraguan officials have been long in the making and follows a series of damning reports from the OAS, UN, HRW, Amnesty and many others about the repressive regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo.

Those sanctions were unanimously adopted. Same goes for the Russia sanctions which get rolled over every six months, despite regular reports that they are doomed. So the question about Nicaragua carries a wider implication. It implies how the UK would vote in the UN and other bodies. Whether it would break unanimity in the EU or Nato. Whether it would side with the Russians in such decisions. Whether it would side with Labour's supposed sister social democratic parties or other, lefter, forces.

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