How Foreign Affairs Wrecked the British Labour Party

August 24, 2016

Unsurprisingly, War on the Rocks commentators have devoted considerable attention to the Republican Party’s current leadership in the run-up to the presidential election. As a Brit, I’d like to say here that the Republican Party is not the only venerable Western political force dealing with an unelectable leadership and damaging internal rifts, mainly arising from external affairs.

Following the United Kingdom’s referendum on E.U. membership – and the shock result in which 52 percent voted to leave the Union – much of the British and international media’s attention has focussed on the feuding within the governing Conservative Party over Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours, not to mention the sudden ending of David Cameron’s premiership. Yet Labour, the main opposition party in the British Parliament, is also in disarray. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is fighting to keep his position despite losing the support of 80 percent of the party’s Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons, all of its peers in the House of Lords (the upper house), and the presumably soon-to-be unemployed Labour Members of the European Parliament in Brussels. Britain’s future role in the world, and in particular the question of when it uses military force, are at the center of the civil war that is taking place in Labour now.

Compared to the economic consequences and the political uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, Labour’s travails may at first glance look like a real world version of the Life of Brian. Yet they could contribute to the more insular and introverted “Littler England” that Anand Menon recently depicted.

To understand Labour’s plight, it is important to realize that it is a coalition of political forces which in other European countries is divided between centrist and more radical parties (the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands and Die Linke in Germany, the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol and Podemos in Spain, and PASOK and Syriza in Greece).

Broadly speaking, Labour consists of the following three tribes.

The first consists of the Atlanticist wing. In foreign affairs, it is pro-American, firmly committed to NATO, and hawkish on defense. The Atlanticist tradition had its foundations in the post-war government of Clement Attlee (1945 to 1951), which helped negotiate the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, established the framework of Anglo-American defense, intelligence and security co-operation described by the so-called “special relationship,” and founded Britain’s nuclear weapons program. Tony Blair’s own approach to foreign and defence policy was in essence almost identical to that of Attlee.

The second consists of the Atlanticists’ bitter enemies, the hard-left. This grouping is institutionally anti-American, and its adherents regularly decry U.S. imperialism as a predatory force and a threat to world peace. For example, it blames the current conflict in Ukraine on NATO expansionism rather than Russian aggression. Hard-left Labour MPs and party members are also intensely anti-Israeli, and such is the extent of the invective directed against Israel that the party held an internal inquiry to address accusations of institutional anti-Semitism. The hard-left has opposed every military campaign Britain has been engaged in during the post-war era, and is committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Its adherents also show sympathy for, or a tendency to excuse, any state in the international system which opposes the United States and the West. Corbyn is typical of their type.

Between these two factions lies what we can call the soft-left majority. Labour’s founding ideology was described as being more Methodist than Marxist. It was committed to evolutionary rather than revolutionary socialism at home, and the causes of peace and international co-operation overseas. Labour’s core ethos rejects realpolitik and the pursuit of selfish national interests, and regards expenditure on the U.K. armed forces as a diversion of resources needed for the welfare state (particularly the National Health Service, whose foundation in 1948 is considered one of the party’s proudest achievements). Soft-leftists have also tended to suspect that Britain’s diplomats, officer corps, and intelligence services are institutionally hostile to their party. Broadly speaking, Labour’s leaders (notably the party’s founder Keir Hardie), Harold Wilson, Gordon Brown, and Ed Miliband) tend to come from the soft-left.

In government and in opposition, soft-left MPs and party members have been the human terrain over which the Atlanticists and the hard-left have fought. In external policy matters, its members react to competing pressures and ideas. Michael Foot, the Labour leader from 1980 to 1983, was committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament but backed the Falklands War of 1982. Foot rejected the hard-left’s view that the Falklands was a colony, arguing fervently that Britain had just cause in liberating its citizens from Argentinean invaders. He also loathed the military junta in Buenos Aires for its atrocities against its citizens during the “dirty war” of the 1970s.

During the Kosovo war in 1999 soft-left MPs backed Blair despite their misgivings; the hard-left claim that an imperialist NATO was bullying Serbia was trumped by the realities of ethnic cleansing conducted against the population’s Albanian majority. With Britain’s controversial engagement in the Iraq War (2003 to 2009), widespread distaste for Saddam Hussein’s regime was overridden by hostility towards President George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives. Many Labour MPs were also concerned about the legitimacy of regime change, and feared that the invasion of Iraq would lead to both massive humanitarian suffering and a disastrous clash between the Western and Islamic worlds. The Iraq conflict saw dissent with Blair’s foreign policy spread from the hard to the soft-left of Labour, and contributed not only to his resignation from office in May 2007, but also his subsequent vilification in party ranks.

Over the past 75 years, the hard-left has generally lost the battles both for control over Labour and the right to dictate party policy on foreign affairs and defense. Corbyn’s election as party leader in September 2015 represents a rare victory for this faction. His name was added to the ballot by MPs who personally opposed him, but believed that he needed to stand in order to “widen the debate,” and he defeated rival candidates due to the mobilization of a strong support base among new members (swelled, according to his critics, by supporters of far-left groups outside Labour who have seized an opportunity to hijack the party. Corbyn has treated this mandate as a permanent one, hence his resistance to calls to resign in the face of almost overwhelming opposition from his MPs. Even after the bulk of his shadow cabinet (the government-in-waiting) resigned, he remains determined to cling on to his position.

Corbyn’s approach to external affairs offers a good example of inverse chauvinism. He is committed to nuclear disarmament, and in the Commons debate on the deterrent on July 18 he challenges his own party’s policy by opposing the replacement of the Vanguard class of ballistic missile submarines. He is a firm supporter of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba  and the Bolivarian government in Venezuela. He was also the chair of the Stop the War Committee, an ostensibly pacifist group set up after the 9/11 attacks. His praise for Hamas and Hezbollah as well as his description of Osama bin Laden’s killing as a ‘tragedy’  have aroused Conservative outrage and Labour disquiet, and his past support for the Irish Republican Army has also provoked the hostility of much of the British press. He sympathizes with Argentina’s claim to the Falklands, and since his election as an MP in 1983 he has opposed just about every military operation the United Kingdom has undertaken since.

Corbyn’s supporters make much of his opposition to the Iraq war  and his supposed prescience over the conflict’s disastrous outcome. In fact, his views on whether a conflict is just or not depend not on the context or on calculations of international law, but who is involved. If America, Britain, a NATO ally, or Israel uses force, it is automatically wrong. Corbyn fervently denounced the Iraq and Afghan wars – and also Israel’s clashes with Hamas in Gaza. Yet he has been silent about Iranian and Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, or Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its proxy war against Ukraine. The Stop the War Committee and its former chair are very selective in deciding which wars it wants to stop.

The Labour leader’s policies not only make him unelectable (current polling puts Labour at least 10 points  behind the Conservatives, despite their damaging internal split between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camps), but also infuriates the majority of his party colleagues. Corbyn has responded to implicit or explicit criticism of his pronouncements from shadow ministers by sacking them. Given that he voted in Parliament to defy party policy on more than 500 occasions between 1983 and 2015, his intolerance of dissent is seen by critics as another sign of his hypocrisy. His tendency to appeal to his supporters over the heads of his MPs – and to use the former to put pressure on the latter – has also contributed to the party’s intramural feud.

In retrospect, the parliamentary debate over Syria in December 2015 was a sign of Labour’s current crisis. In response to the then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal for British support to coalition air-strikes against Islamic State in Syria, Corbyn not only declared his opposition but also initially stated that Labour MPs would be denied a free vote. He was forced to retract this attempt to fix party policy by angry colleagues, and during the Commons debate on December 2 his shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, challenged his leader by supporting U.K. participation in the air campaign against the Islamic State .

Benn’s defense of intervention was all the more striking given the fact that his father, Tony, was a hero figure to the hard-left. Indeed, 28 years ago Corbyn backed the elder Benn’s bid to oust the-then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. For some Labour MPs, Syria had become a replay of that which preceded Iraq in February 2003, representing an opportunity for the party to expunge the stain on its reputation caused by the ensuing war and occupation. In contrast, Hilary Benn’s speech in Parliament focused on the atrocities that the Islamic State had committed in Iraq and Syria, including massacres of civilians and the imposition of sex slavery on female captives. He condemned members of the group as latter-day fascists, stating that British support for the fight against them was as morally justified as the backing that international volunteers gave to the Spanish Republic during the civil war of 1936 to 1939. Benn’s intervention stressed the moral as well as the strategic rationale for fighting the Islamic State, and the Spanish civil war analogy in particular represented an appeal to an aspect of the British left’s tradition more commonly evoked by radicals. For their part, Corbyn’s supporters were outraged by Benn’s comparisons between Spain in the 1930s and Syria now.

Yet it is Europe, and the outcome of the recent referendum, which in the long run could prove as fatal for Corbyn’s leadership of his own party as it was for Cameron’s. Labour has traditionally been wary of European integration. In October 1962, the then-leader Hugh Gaitskell was firmly against Britain’s first bid to join what was then the European Economic Community, and leaving the European Economic Community was one of the policy proposals in the party’s 1983 election manifesto. Since the late 1980s, Labour’s policy towards Europe has fundamentally changed. It has been a firm supporter of E.U. membership, regarding it as a crucial means of upholding the employment rights of its working and lower-middle class support base. During the referendum campaign, Labour officially committed itself to stay in the European Union, although some of its parliamentarians (notably Frank Field, Dennis Skinner, and Gisela Stuart) aligned with “Leave.” However, the party’s hard-left has shown hostility to European integration ever since the 1975 referendum called by Wilson . Corbyn’s own past pronouncements suggest that he privately wishes to leave the Union (, and it was his equivocal behavior during the referendum campaign that has led to this irreparable rift with the bulk of the parliamentary party. Indeed, he and his inner circle stand accused of the “deliberate sabotage” of the “Remain” campaign.

Corbyn’s commitment to the “Remain” cause is best described as lukewarm. Labour figures have complained that efforts to get the party leader to rally its voters to reject Brexit were blocked by his inner circle. Indeed, Corbyn’s few public statements for “Remain” offered grudging and qualified support for Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, leading his critics to suspect that he was in fact deliberately undermining the case for staying in. Many of the 52 percent of Britons who voted for Brexit came from regions of the United Kingdom (notably the North of England, the Midlands and South Wales) which have traditionally been Labour heartlands. Disgust over what can at best be described as the leader’s incompetence over the referendum has been the catalyst for a revolt which has united the majority of MPs, including many who were initially prepared to back Corbyn in the interests of party unity. Following Benn’s sacking as shadow foreign secretary on June 24 – shortly after the referendum result was announced – Corbyn was beset with a series of resignations from the shadow cabinet and a vote of no confidence approved by 172 out of 230 parliamentarians.

Aside from long-term loyalists like the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and the shadow health secretary, Diane Abbott, Corbyn is isolated within the parliamentary party. In the leadership election to come it remains to be seen whether his failure to fight effectively for Britain’s continued E.U. membership will affect his support base. Corbyn’s election as party leader depended on a surge of support from younger members, similar to that which fueled Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic ticket in this year’s U.S. presidential primaries. By and large, it is the 18 to 42 demographic which was in favor of staying in the European Union.

Corbyn’s attempts to recover control of his party have also invoked foreign policy. After the Chilcot Report was released on July 6, 2016, he declared his intention to support a Commons motion declaring Blair guilty of contempt of Parliament for misleading MPs during the March 2003 Iraq debate. Iraq has indeed become an almost neuralgic issue within the Labour party, with former members of the Blair government. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott  and the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw retrospectively expressed regret over their support for the intervention. For Corbyn’s more avid supporters, the “coup” against him is a conspiracy to divert attention for Chilcot, and to undermine efforts to have Blair indicted for war crimes. Hatred between the Atlanticist and hard-left wings of Labour is nothing new, but in previous forms the latter have never avidly wished for a former party leader and prime minister to end up in the dock.

Over a century after its foundation, one of the longest standing parties of the left in the West is on the verge of splitting apart, and external affairs are at the heart of this intramural feud. Iraq will in all likelihood be at the core of the Corbynite narrative, presenting their enemies as the heirs of the class traitors and hirelings of the Blairites who wrought such havoc on the Iraqi people 13 years ago. In turn, Corbyn’s own opponents will castigate a disastrous leader who at best focused on issues of either marginal interest to the British electorate (such as the Bolivarian “revolution” in Venezuela and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) or which repelled patriotic voters, and at worst betrayed the party and its support base over Brexit.

As far as wider implications are concerned, Labour’s electoral unpopularity under its current leader means that it is currently difficult to see how Corbyn could ever become prime minister. His prospects of leading Britain out of NATO – and of expelling the U.S. Air Force and the National Security Agency from Fairford and Menwith Hill – are therefore slim to nonexistent. However, the likely disintegration of Labour, either as a result of an internal split, or electoral annihilation in 2020, will have external implications. The Scottish National Party caused a shock in the 2015 general election when it seized all but one of Labour’s parliamentary seats. While formally committed to take an independent Scotland into NATO, it demands the withdrawal of the Royal Navy’s submarines and Trident missiles from their base at Faslane, and its leader Nicola Sturgeon (who is also Scotland’s First Minister) has threatened a re-run of the 2014 independence referendum if and when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is looking to build up its support base among voters in formerly safe Labour constituencies, calculating that their concerns over immigration and the pernicious effects of globalization – but also their residual patriotism – offers an opportunity for a UKIP electoral breakthrough, particularly if Corbyn remains in charge of Labour. The traditional two-way fight between the Tory center-right and Labour’s center-left is on the verge of being replaced by an electoral struggle between an establishment party, a nativist and insular UKIP, and a nationalist and secessionist Scottish National Party. The disengagement of Littler England from wider international affairs may well be exacerbated by Labour’s decline into infighting and electoral irrelevance.


Geraint Hughes is a Senior Lecturer with the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham, UK. He is the author of Harold Wilson’s Cold War (2009) and My Enemy’s Enemy: Proxy Warfare in International Politics (2012), and is currently researching the history of the civil war in Dhofar, Oman, from 1963 to 1976. 

Image: Garry Knight, CC