Corbyn has been replaced by Starmer as Labour leader but pressure from the mass of the movement on the key issues – no more wars of intervention, support for the Palestinians, no cold war with China – can make a difference.
by Andrew Murray
The pandemic put paid to the usual conference season for the British labour movement in 2020. Many union conferences were postponed, and the TUC Congress was held in an abbreviated form and mostly online. Labour’s conference was scrapped altogether in its normal form, and was replaced by a “Labour Connected” online event, with no policy-making powers.
The usual review of the international situation at these conferences did not take place therefore. World politics has proceeded regardless however, albeit under the shadow of coronavirus, and the labour movement is having to orient itself in a changing situation.
The changes apply to Labour itself. In April, Jeremy Corbyn, long-standing champion of liberation struggles around the world, was replaced as Labour leader by Sir Keir Starmer, a man without much profile on these issues. Corbyn’s staunch anti-imperialist and anti-war campaigning was his quality which the hostile establishment liked least of all.
Nevertheless, Corbyn’s views chimed with Party members. A survey conducted earlier this year found that the most popular campaigning organisations amongst the Labour membership (other than the big affiliated trade unions Unite and Unison) were the Stop the War Coalition and Palestine Solidarity. The least liked was Labour Friends of Israel.
The new Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy has seemed to move in a different direction – her pronouncements on China, Russia and other issues have hewed close to establishment consensus thinking. The drift back towards foreign policy bipartisanship is unmistakable.
This will doubtless be further encouraged by the election of Joe Biden to the US Presidency. The traditional Atlanticism which has formed a large part of the outlook of the Labour rightwing for seventy years or more, and has led to British participation in calamities like the Iraq War of 2003, was a harder sell when Donald Trump was in the White House. But linking up with US Democrats has traditionally been the default position of the centre and right of Labour.
Business as usual Biden
Biden signals a return to “business as usual” after four years of the racist authoritarianism of Trump. However, business as usual under Democrats and Republicans alike has meant one war of intervention after another this century, and Biden’s foreign policy team seems full of “liberal interventionists”.
Starmer pledged, when standing for election as Labour Leader, to oppose any more such aggressions, particularly in the Middle East. As noted, they are overwhelmingly opposed by the Party membership. However, the desire to align with a Biden presidency could undermine such good intentions.
Likewise, the Party will face pressure to dilute its solidarity with the Palestinian people. One of the demands raised by Jewish communal bodies and others for putting Labour’s convulsions over anti-Semitism behind it has been that the Party should return to being an “honest broker”, even-handed between Israel and the Palestinians.
What this means is abandoning any sympathy for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign which has put some international pressure on the Israeli government and mouthing “two state” platitudes which are increasingly at odds with the reality on the ground as Israeli settlement in the West Bank proceeds apace, backed by plans for full annexation of most of the territory of a putative Palestinian state.
Here the labour movement has clear policy.
The following resolution, moved by Unite, was adopted by the TUC at its online conference in September:
“Congress stands united in its full opposition to the Israeli government’s declared intention to annex great swathes of the West Bank, a move that is illegal under international law and that makes clear there is no intent on the part of the Israeli government to end the occupation and recognise the Palestinian people’s right to self determination.
It will be another significant step in the creation of a system of apartheid.
For too long the international community has stood idly by as the Israeli state has been allowed to carry out its crimes and this cannot be tolerated or accepted any longer. Decisive action is now urgently needed in relation to Israel’s illegal actions against the Palestinians.
Congress therefore resolves to:
- fully support and play an active role in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s actions to build a broad coalition against the proposed Israeli annexation and to urge all affiliates to do likewise
- send a letter to the prime minister demanding that the UK take firm and decisive measures, including sanctions, to ensure that Israel stops or reverses the illegal annexation, ends the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza, and respects the right of Palestinian refugees to return iii. communicate its position to all other national trade union centres in the International and European Trade Union Confederations and urge them to join the international campaign to stop annexation and end apartheid.”
Thus the labour movement maintains its robust stance in support of the Palestinian people and against Israeli colonialism.
Biden is unlikely to make a significant difference here. His view was made clear more than thirty years ago when, justifying US military aid to Israel, he said: “If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.” No significant pressure on Israel to abide by international law can be expected – will Labour take a stronger position?
Understandably, Labour will align with Biden on other issues, like trying to revive the nuclear arms agreement with Iran, rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and reviving nuclear weapons talks with Russia.
But then again, the Tory government will support these positions too.
Boris Johnson of course talks of a new “global Britain”, a prospect which will hardly be welcomed in those considerable parts of the globe which have experienced what British imperialism means in practice.
However, his rhetoric is belied by the reality of Britain’s position, outside the EU, somewhat estranged from the new US administration on account of the Withdrawal Agreement’s impact on Ireland amongst other things, and drawn into a quasi-confrontational stance against China.
Alienation from the three largest economic blocs in the world is not a good place to start to assert a new world role. But Labour has to provide its own alternative version for Britain’s place in the world. Corbyn clearly did that, with his emphasis on the peaceful resolution of disputes, and addressing the roots of global poverty, injustice and environmental despoliation.
This should not be left to Starmer and Nandy. Pressure from the mass of the movement on the key issues – no more wars of intervention, support for the Palestinians, no cold war with China – will be what can make the difference. The years of knowing that the anti-war and solidarity movements had a supporter in the Labour Leader’s office are over, but campaigning pressure can still ensure that Labour plays a progressive part.
Andrew Murray is a former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn
Photo: Creative Commons