Why is nobody talking about foreign policy in the Labour leadership contest?

Dealing with anti-Semitism was and remains a major challenge for the Labour Party and each of the leadership candidates has said that he or she would prioritise the issue.
Sunday 22/03/2020
Three Labour leadership candidates (L-R) Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey. (AFP)
Skipping what’s important. Three Labour leadership candidates (L-R) Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey. (AFP)

As voting in the Labour leadership contest begins, the focus has been on domestic issues and the extent to which any future leader would yaw towards or away from the radical policies and populist stylings of outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Scant attention has been paid to foreign policy with few questions directed to the Labour leadership candidates on how, if they ever enter Number 10 Downing Street, they would direct the country’s foreign policy.

As Labour members, along with unions and other allied groups, look to decide between Shadow Brexit Minister Keir Starmer, former Shadow Charities Minister Lisa Nandy and former Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, foreign policy acumen is clearly not among criteria being considered.

This is a mistake, particularly considering Corbyn’s strong views on foreign policy caused many in Britain to vote for him and many to vote against him. Voters were heard again and again complaining that they could not cast their ballot for somebody who was a “friend” of Hamas and Hezbollah, who received money to appear as a guest on Iran’s Press TV and who was viewed as a “pacifist” who would dismantle the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent.

Corbyn’s stance on other foreign policy issues puts him on the right side of history and gained him many ardent fans. He opposed the Iraq war and other British military misadventures in the Middle East, while pledging to swiftly “recognise Palestine as a state” should he become prime minister. Policies such as this saw Labour Party membership peak. Many people joined the party on the strength of Corbyn’s personal appeal and they remain a major force in the party.

Long-Bailey, viewed as a natural successor to Corbyn, awarded the outgoing leader a score of 10 out of 10 when asked to rate his leadership of the party. That’s a leadership that includes overseeing Labour’s biggest election loss in nearly 100 years.

On foreign policy, just like on domestic policy, Long-Bailey would be expected to pursue a very similar tact to Corbyn but without the baggage. Given that she only joined Labour in 2010 and became an MP in 2015, she has little hands-on foreign policy experience.

No pictures of her laying wreaths on the graves of Hamas martyrs will emerge during the election campaign and she has been careful not to fall into anti-Semitic discourse when talking about Palestine, something that remains an obsession among the left.

Dealing with anti-Semitism was and remains a major challenge for the Labour Party and each of the leadership candidates has said that he or she would prioritise the issue.

Nandy, considered a centrist, has faced criticism for seeming to be trying to play “both sides” after she received the backing of the Jewish Labour Movement — one of the oldest societies affiliated with the party — while expressing support for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

“I have and always will support Palestinian rights. That’s why I oppose [US President Donald] Trump’s plan, have campaigned against British business profiting from the occupied Palestinian territories and support any embargo on arms deals that violates human rights,” she said in response to a letter from the PSC.

Nandy, chairwoman of the Labour Friends of Palestine group who became an MP in 2010, said she backs Palestinians’ right of return but did not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. She described herself as a “Zionist” who would kick out any Labour members found guilty of anti-Semitism.

“How can you support Zionism, be against the BDS campaign and then support pledges from an organisation like PSC who had records of being deliberately ambiguous about the two-state solution and do promote BDS?” asked Stephane Savary, national vice-chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement on Twitter. “Playing both sides won’t make you more electable.”

Starmer, another centrist and the apparent front-runner as indicted by polling, also has not spoken much about foreign policy. His legal work on human rights and opposition to the death penalty won him many fans, as did his strong anti-Brexit stance.

He was knighted in 2014 for “services to law and criminal justice” and is a former director of public prosecution. His experience in law and order, as well as his “establishment” bearing, may help him win votes from the centre but on foreign policy he is cut from the same cloth as Nandy and Long-Bailey.

Like them, he has voted consistently against British military action overseas, including against missions to fight the Islamic State. Like them, he is supportive of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while also making clear that he respects and supports Israel’s existence.

Like them, he supports a strategic British retreat from the Middle East based on ideological, rather than realistic grounds.

The most recent Labour leader to win an election, Tony Blair, called on the party to seek to be more realistic and avoid getting dragged into culture wars and identity politics and focus instead on actually winning.

“The right ideas in politics never work without the right mentality,” he said in a speech marking Labour’s 120th anniversary in February. “The Labour Party is not an NGO and not a pressure group. Its aim is not to trend on Twitter or to have celebrities (temporarily) fawn over it or to glory in a bubble of adulation pricked by the sharp point of the first tough decision. Our task is to win power and get our hands stuck into the muddy mangle of governing.”

Whoever becomes Labour’s next leader April 4, he or she will face a muddy mangle when dealing with the Middle East mired in conflict and tension. How will they address that?