Saturday 5 September 2015

Should the left be worried by Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy?

Much of the flak aimed at Jeremy Corbyn over the course of the Labour Party leadership campaign has been a predictable mix of right-wing alarmism fed by distorted media reports on what a Corbyn-led government might be like.

But there are other critics of the current favourite for the party leadership who claim to be criticising him from the left and base their hostility to him on his record and, to a lesser extent, his proposals on foreign policy.

One of the most prominent of these is James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, who argues in the International Business Times that the various positions he has taken on international matters over the last three decades should convince fellow left-wingers that Corbyn is “persona non grata” and therefore not someone who should secure their vote.

Corbyn is, says Bloodworth, “remarkably good at proffering apologetics for dictatorship and tyranny”, listing Gaddafi, Chavez, Putin, Milosevic and Castro amongst those to have received the Corbyn seal of approval. He adds the by now well-worn criticism that he once referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. He and others have pointed out at length that Corbyn is not over-fussy who he has associated himself with in the past and have drawn particular attention to platforms he has shared with anti-Semites.

Bloodworth sees Corbyn’s politics—and those of the Stop the War Coalition, which Corbyn chairs—as driven by a naive anti-imperialism that views the USA as the source of all evil in the world. From that perspective anyone who opposes the USA or its proxies (such as the UK)—particularly middle eastern terrorist organisations and former Stalinist states—can expect the automatic support of the left. The fact that these organisations are often anti-gay, anti-women and anti-democratic is, according to Bloodworth, irrelevant to this section of the left.

In short, the charge is that Corbyn, by lending his support to these reactionary organisations, undermines his claims to be against these things domestically. Bloodworth explains that “… however much a Corbyn-led Labour party might claim to be standing up for the most vulnerable, it will always and everywhere be willing to sacrifice the very people it ought to stick up for—the world’s democrats, secularists, Jews, gays and women—on the ideological alter [sic] of anti-Americanism.”

So does Corbyn have a case to answer on these issues? It is true, in my view, that he has been at his least comfortable on this terrain. His rivals for the leadership position accuse him of being an apologist for Putin when he states that Russia was not entirely the aggressor in Ukraine. They belittle his grasp of diplomacy when he explains that his use of the term “friends” as applied to Hamas was merely diplomatic language. And when they do, Corbyn displays rare glimpses of irritation in contrast to his normally calm persona.

In many ways though, this is testament to what he is and always has been: a man of conviction. Someone who, for over three decades in British politics, has never been afraid to speak his mind without regard for the tutting spin doctors at Labour HQ. Someone who, in contrast to his opponents, doesn’t speak largely in meaningless soundbites with half a mind on how the press will report their words, avoiding any statement of substance for fear of the spin the media might put on it.

It should be remembered too, when considering Corbyn’s choice of friends, who the mainstream Labour Party counts amongst their acquaintances. It has a long history, in and out of government, of supporting dictatorial regimes like Saudi Arabia. And, as Corbyn has pointed out, Tony Blair has met with Hamas far more frequently than him.

The hypocrisy of Labour loyalists knows no bounds on this. During the build up to the defining issue of the Blair premiership, the Iraq war, much was made of the Saddam Hussein regime’s use of chemical weapons in Halabja in 1988. And yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who was almost a lone voice at the time raising this in Parliament. The official UK government response meanwhile was to flog more weapons at the Baghdad Arms Fair with no protest from the mainstream Labour Party. For them, it was only 15 years later that it became a useful stick with which to beat Saddam in the lead-up to war. Corbyn has been accused of being selective in whose human rights he chooses to back. As that episode—and many more besides shows—that is not a fault exclusive to him and his brand of politics.

Exchanging charges of hypocrisy though rarely moves a political discussion forward. To be clear: all socialists should have differences with Jeremy Corbyn over foreign policy. Let’s leave aside the more ludicrous “guilt by association” claims that have been made. Even so we should be clear it is not possible for someone on the left to be “friends” with an organisation that is anti-gay, anti-women and anti-Semitic, even while it may be permissible and indeed sensible to talk with them.

But there is currently a right-wing agenda to nail Corbyn on these issues and the so-called left shouldn’t be helping. By attacking him on the same terrain as the right, his left critics are undermining the valuable work he does internationally for the Palestinian people and in many other campaigns. Furthermore, the left shouldn’t be conducting its discussion in the pages of the Guardian, still less the International Business Times. We should be having the debate—and raising these legitimate concerns—but within the channels of the labour movement.

If Corbyn were to win the leadership contest the Labour Party would not transform overnight into some kind of clone of the Stop the War Coalition. His policies would not be adopted the next day. There would be a thorough debate over what becomes party policy and it would be at a much higher level, politically speaking, than anything we have seen for years.

More importantly for socialists this contest is not even primarily about Jeremy Corbyn. It is not about any one person. It is about reshaping the whole ground on which debates inside the Labour Party and inside the left more generally occur.

For this reason it is imperative that socialists in the Labour Party support Corbyn so this debate can happen. If any of his competitors were to win the party would quickly settle back into business as usual. A vitally important opportunity for debate for the left and the labour movement as a whole would be lost, and along with it the very real opportunity to win people to a solid set of policies on the domestic front. The opportunity to propose and win arguments against the logic of austerity. A logic that is accepted, to a greater or lesser extent, by Corbyn’s opponents.

So do I think Jeremy Corbyn has questions to answer about his associations? Yes.

Do I think he is correct on international matters? Yes and no.

But do I think this should cause socialists to withhold their vote for Jeremy Corbyn as the next leader of the Labour Party? Absolutely not.

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