It’s over then. After almost five years, Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader has come to a close. Corbyn ended as he led: with the petulance and ill grace that has characterised his political career.
As Corbyn slopes to the backbenches to resume a life of fruitless campaigning, Keir Starmer steps up to replace him. He faces a mammoth task: rebuilding Labour as a credible electoral force. This is necessary for both party and country. All of us, wherever we stand on the political spectrum, need a functioning opposition. But make no mistake: if Starmer is to make Labour palatable once more, both politically and indeed morally, he will need to reject his predecessor’s foreign policy – and quickly.
Corbynism had a warped view of the world, with Britain’s role in it necessarily warped, too. Rejecting Corbyn’s foreign policy means rejecting a wholesale belief system which infects much of Labour’s governing apparatus. It is based on conspiracy, anti-Westernism, and on the pervasive apologism of autocracy. Labour needs to rid itself of a mindset drenched in anti-Americanism, and which sees Britain better off outside the common defence obligations of Nato in favour of cosying up to Putin.
This is not hyperbole. And it is worth remembering exactly what we are talking about here. Just consider Corbyn’s reaction to the news that Russian agents had poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018. You’d have thought that the leader of her Majesty’s loyal opposition would have felt outraged by the attack. Not Corbyn. He refused to condemn Russia, while his spokesman even questioned the reliability of British intelligence assessments given the debacle of Iraq. Forget Britain over Russia; he couldn’t even choose MI6 over the FSB.
For too long repugnant regimes had a sympathetic ear in Corbyn. Don’t believe me? In Syria, as Bashar al-Assad slaughtered without mercy, Corbyn criticised Britain for conducting a joint airstrike against the dictator, after he once again used chemicals weapons on his own people. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro disappears his opponents, crushes dissent, and tortures political prisoners. Meanwhile, Corbyn played up conspiracy theories propagated by Caracas and attacked ‘outside [read, American] interference’ against the Venezuelan government.
This kind of creepy adulation of dictators is popular on both the hard left and hard right. It needs to be fought, and fought unwaveringly. These habits of mind are always degenerative. In a career of almost forty years as an MP, it’s as if Corbyn rarely saw an autocrat he wouldn’t excuse or a terrorist he wouldn’t find some way to defend. And there is price for all of this. History is remorseless. It will remember.
Conventional wisdom says voters don’t tend to elect or reject parties based on foreign policy. True enough. But here’s the crux. Foreign policy is key to the essence of Corbynism, which the British electorate found demonstrably repellent. When Corbyn spoke at conferences they flew not the red flag but the Palestinian one. Why? Because Corbyn was never really interested in Britain, except when it could be portrayed as the bad guy on a wider stage.
And so it is for the bulk of his most extreme followers. When he entered the Labour leadership race in 2015, he brought these people with him. His views now course through significant parts of the Labour membership, the party’s more extreme (or dim, depending on your view) MPs and finally, of course, certain of its social media foot-soldiers.
For Starmer the process should be clear: change Labour’s worldview; change its supporters; and then get your party back. It’s simple enough to set out on paper but a difficult operation to mount in practice. He will face a wall of resistance. The hard left waited forty years for their chance to get power. These are people with patience and cunning and a willingness to fight dirty; they will not go without a sustained and serious fight.
But fight Starmer must. The early signs are good: apart from Rebecca Long-Bailey, his first shadow cabinet contained barely any Corbynistas in key positions. This is encouraging but he needs to do more. Corbyn’s international worldview was always a capitulation to crankery. It is unserious and juvenile and malign. It would isolate us from our natural allies and make bedfellows of our enemies. Starmer must reject it and reject unequivocally – and he must start now.
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