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Starmer’s Challenge to Anti-War Politics

Foreign policy was at the heart of Corbynism. Will Starmer’s desire to reshape the party be reflected in his approach to foreign policy?

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Should we believe that Starmer will continue with the progressive approach to foreign policy displayed under Corbyn?


As part of his campaign for the Labour Party leadership Keir Starmer released a video of himself marching against the Iraq war, in so doing presenting himself as an anti-war campaigner, and drawing a link with his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. In an attempt to woo votes from the anti-war membership Starmer pledged that as leader he would promote peace and human rights. His pledge read:

“No more illegal wars. Introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Review all UK arms sales and make us a force for international peace and justice.”

Should we believe that Starmer will continue with the progressive approach to foreign policy displayed under Corbyn? Or will Starmer’s desire to reshape the party be reflected in his approach to foreign policy regardless of any campaign promises?

Foreign policy was at the heart of Corbynism, so much so that shortly after Starmer’s election as Labour leader, David Patrikarakos wrote in The Spectator “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.”

So far the most significant policy shift has been over the question of Kashmir. After a meeting with Labour Friends of India, Starmer made it clear that the policy, approved at the 2019 Labour Party conference in support of Kashmir’s right to self-determination, was being swept aside.

Kashmir has been a disputed area and a flashpoint for conflict since Partition in 1947. The action of Prime Minister Modi’s right-wing government in revoking Kashmir's autonomy and mounting a military clampdown are in direct breach of UN agreements. These actions have resulted in severe restrictions on human rights - with hundreds of arrests and communication systems blocked - and have significantly ramped up tensions with Pakistan.

Starmer’s statement in defence of the Indian government’s actions claimed that "Any constitutional issues in India are a matter for the Indian Parliament, and Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully”.

By making such a statement Starmer not only turned his back on previous UN resolutions and the rights of Kashmiri people, he also unilaterally overturned Labour’s democratically held position. The reason? To curry favour with the Modi government and keep a promise that Labour, under his leadership, “would build even stronger business links with India”.

Another area of policy shift is in relation to Israel. It is hardly surprising that the new leader wished to ‘draw a line’ under the anti-semitism accusations which have plagued Labour over the last few years. However, in declaring himself a Zionist “without qualification” he risks sending out a message that Labour is moderating its support for the Palestinian people.

Supporting justice for the Palestinians, ending arms sales to Israel and refusing to recognise illegal Israeli settlements, are strongly held positions of Corbyn supporting Labour members. The sea of Palestinian flags being waved at the 2018 Party conference is testament to this. Any retreat from this position must be resisted by Labour members.

The appointment of Lisa Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary and John Healey as Shadow Defence Secretary indicates a repositioning from the anti-war policies of Corbyn’s Labour. The danger is that the Labour Party under their watch is less likely to support the anti-war movement.

Although all three MPs - Starmer, Nandy and Healey - voted against airstrikes in Syria in 2015, and, as displayed in the much flaunted video footage, Starmer marched against war with Iraq, it would be a mistake to assume that these actions equate with opposition to all military intervention. In fact Nandy has publicly criticised those who justify opposition to military interventions by citing the catastrophe of Iraq.

And Starmer, in a Guardian article he penned in 2015, made it clear that his vote against air strikes on Syria was because he believed that air strikes alone would be ineffective without troops on the ground.

“I would back military action, however, the prime minister’s strategy to defeat Isis is flawed without an effective ground force.” Keir Starmer 30 Nov 2015

John Healey is said to have repeatedly clashed with Corbyn on national security matters. Not surprisingly - his voting record shows that not only did he support the Iraq war, but, with the exception of air strikes on Syria, he has consistently voted in favour of UK military intervention overseas.

As Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary Healey will be leading on the party’s response to the Government’s Integrated Review - the review of the UK’s foreign policy, defence, security and international development priorities.

So far it appears that Labour is set to continue to support Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Both Starmer and Healey voted for Trident renewal in 2016, and Nandy, who voted against renewal, has seemingly had a change of heart - informing journalists that she would press the nuclear button if she were to become PM. With the exorbitant and ever rising cost of Trident we hope that priorities might change in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Corbyn’s foreign policy position was integral to his leadership and won the support of thousands of Labour members. The new management of Labour appears to be trying to reposition the party by making a break with its recent past. Starmer’s call to make Labour “a force for international peace and justice” may ring hollow. 

We know that Stop the War is one of the most popular campaign groups amongst Labour members; we must ensure that members’ anti-war views do not become sidelined by the new leadership team.

If Labour continues to move away from anti-war positions it will be up to us in the anti-war movement to stay focussed, to stay strong, to continue to hold politicians from all parties to account, and to build campaigns both within and outside Labour. We have done this before; we can do so again.

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