Keir Starmer didn’t cause the Ukraine crisis but is certainly using it as an opportunity to show voters that he is a patriotic, pro-Nato politician who rejects the pacificism of the Labor left and his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer is playing a game of cat and mouse with anti-war Labor MPs including Diane Abbott and John McDonnell. The mice flirt with Stop the War’s position, but sense Starmer has set a trap for them. They do not want to lose the party whip like Corbyn, now an independent MP. He has walked into Starmer’s trap by refusing to distance himself from Stop the War, making it easier to ban him from standing as a Labor candidate at the next general election.
Abbott, McDonnell and another nine Labor MPs signed a Stop the War statement criticizing the UK government because it “sent arms to Ukraine and deployed further troops to Eastern Europe, moves which serve no purpose other than inflaming tensions and indicating disdain for Russian concerns”.
They then withdrew their names after Starmer threatened disciplinary action and later scrapped plans to attend a Stop the War rally on Wednesday. Abbott, who told the group’s rally on 11 February that she “claims that Russia is the aggressor should be treated sceptically,” now insists she supports Starmer on Ukraine, and he supports the government’s approach. Privately, left-wing MPs agree with Stop the War’s reminder that: “We have been proved right on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya where Labor leaders were wrong.”
Labour’s divisions on defense and foreign policy have dogged the party throughout its history. The left’s opposition to both war and capitalism has often translated into anti-Americanism, making it willing to give the US’ Russian enemy the benefit of the doubt, as it did on Ukraine at first. Corbyn did so disastrously after the Salisbury poisonings, as even his close allies now admit. This harmed Labor at the 2019 election, particularly in the red wall seats, contributing to a wider view that the party could not be trusted to run the country.
Starmer claims Labor has always been a pro-Nato party. Technically, he is correct. But that masks the intense internal debate. At the 1983 election Labour, led by the CND standard-bearer Michael Foot, promised to unilaterally give up the UK’s nuclear weapons, making a nonsense of its simultaneous support for Nato. Then Neil Kinnock, another CND member, tied himself in knots as he ditched the vote-losing policy, a painful journey during which he once told me Labor supported both unilateral and multilateral disarmament.
Tony Blair, determined to root out the party’s anti-Americanism, over-corrected by backing the US invasion of Iraq a year before it happened.
The Iraq disaster tarnished New Labour’s image and meant it did not get the credit it deserved for its domestic policy achievements. It was seized on by the left in Labour’s internal power struggle, as an insightful collection of essays about the party’s history, “Rethinking Labour’s Past,” to be launched next Tuesday points out. Its editor Nathan Yeowell, executive director of the Progressive Britain think tank, writes that to its supporters, Corbynism was in part “a rejection of the lies of the Iraq war.”
The book’s laudable aim is to stop Labour’s rival factions cherry-picking the party’s history to suit their own arguments. As Yeowell puts it, to “excavate Labour’s history, whilst remaining aware of the dangers of lapsing into nostalgia or treating historical exploration as a displacement activity from the urgent task of understanding the sociological and economic complexities of contemporary British society.”
A good example is that while the Corbyn left reveres the radicalism of Attlee’s post-war government which created the modern welfare state, it doesn’t talk about his patriotism and pivotal role, along with his foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, in creating Nato. The pair also commissioned nuclear weapons and cemented the UK’s alliance with the US.
Despite the left’s attempts to pin the Blairite label on Starmer, his model is Attlee and Bevin, not Blair. Crucially, Attlee judged that Labor needed to persuade people it could be trusted on defense in a dangerous world before it stood a chance of winning them round to its radical policies.
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For Starmer, this task is even more important now there is war in Europe; the world is suddenly dangerous again. Starmer told the Parliamentary Labor Party on Monday that “Nato, and not just the NHS, was one the great achievements of the post-war Labor government.” To be fair, his campaign on patriotism and security began well before the Ukraine crisis. “We knew the importance of moving to a better place on this,” one ally told me.
Normally, the public rally behind the government of the day in a crisis, as they did initially on Covid. Boris Johnson’s dire ratings might improve a little. But the growing perception that the UK is dragging its feet on sanctions against Russia is dangerous for him; even the ministers in charge of it are frustrated at how long the process is taking.
Unusually, this international crisis might just aid the opposition leader more than it does the prime minister.