The Rise of the Left in Britain

Britain's leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, gestures as he delivers his keynote speech at the party's annual conference in Brighton, Britain, September 29. (Reuters/Luke Macgregor)

The past six months have been highly eventful for British politics. After the elections in May, which saw the re-election of the Conservatives and the disastrous defeats of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the country encountered yet another political surprise in September with the election of the Labour party’s new leader: Jeremy Corbyn. A veteran of the backbenches and a relative outsider, Corbyn won the contest with a majority of almost 60 percent. His vision of a kinder, fairer, and more inclusive form of politics has sparked far broader interest than anyone expected, and his campaign (and subsequent election) has brought in thousands of new members. While this new buzz around the left of British politics means a shake-up domestically, it also has international implications.

Foreign policy is an integral part of Corbyn’s politics, reflected in his long background as a peace campaigner. Based on a belief in diplomatic rather than military solutions, human values, and peaceful development, his positions on foreign policy seek to challenge the existing status quo and question some of the prevailing assumptions that underpin the United Kingdom’s alliances. No pillar of the UK’s security or defense policy is sacred, and this includes areas of common interest with the United States.

Corbyn is particularly critical of the UK’s close relationship with the United States and the effect this has had on the country’s involvement in conflicts and interventions, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. An apology for the Iraq war was a key promise in his campaign, and for many in the party the war remains an issue that has been difficult to reconcile. He is unlikely to regard the US-UK special relationship with the same high esteem as other British leaders have before him.

He is also a critic of NATO, which he considers a Cold War relic in need of dire reform. Though he is critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he blames the alliance for the remilitarization of Central Europe, and argues that the eastward expansion of NATO is in part responsible for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. While it may be an argument shared by some American political scientists, it will likely cause unease among others as tensions in the region continue. Were he to come to power, Corbyn would probably not support a continuation of the UK’s 2 percent GDP contribution to NATO.

Other major alliances are similarly questioned. As a traditional Euro-sceptic, Corbyn has been critical of how the European Union has handled the Greek financial crisis. Though he recently stated his support for the UK remaining in the European Union, he wants to see Brussels dramatically reformed for a better Europe, and his initial hesitation in choosing a side for the expected EU referendum has made many pro-Europeans in the center of the party, as well as many Europhiles outside of it, nervous.

The centrality of the nuclear deterrent to British defence policy is another target of his political fire. As a long-standing member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Corbyn has been a consistent advocate for the abolition of the UK’s nuclear force. With the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) looking to remove the Trident nuclear weapons system from bases in Scotland, Corbyn’s win means that there will be a much more serious national discussion, and indeed a more vigorous campaign, that sets the case against the retention of the deterrent ahead of an anticipated vote in 2016. This campaigning extends into the wider arms trade and he will challenge the trade of arms and on-going diplomatic relationships that the UK has with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

On the Middle East, Corbyn’s interest is longstanding, although often at odds with prevailing US and UK policies. Though he supports Israel’s right to exist, he has been critical of its policies in the occupied territories and champions the importance of Palestinian rights. His approach to the Middle East peace process, including his encounters with members of Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups (among others) has, however, caused concern among many commentators and political opponents and will probably raise eyebrows in the United States. His tendency to favor dialogue over military action causes many to feel both uncomfortable and uncertain about how he would tackle the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the Middle East.

Britain’s Conservative government has called Corbyn’s policies a threat to national security, and others have labeled them naïve and unrealistic. Yet given how his views are resonating with certain sectors of society, it is necessary to engage with, rather than dismiss, his viewpoints and understand the context that has given rise to his popularity.

A core part of Corbyn’s appeal is his opposition to the prevailing economics of austerity championed by the Conservatives at a time when the country is still feeling the brunt of recession. Austerity has hit certain sectors of the UK hard and his appeal among the trade unions and new parts of the electorate is testament to a desire for more equitable economic alternatives. Socialism may be an unpopular concept in US politics, but Europeans (including the Brits) have a much more comfortable relationship with it, as is evident from the rise of Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, and more center-left governments across the region.

Labour’s new leader has galvanized support among many who were tired of the status quo. The former Labour leader and subsequent Prime Minister Tony Blair succeeded in moving Labour into the center ground, making it more electable as a party. Yet, in so doing, British politics became more about shades of gray than distinctly different politics. Corbyn’s meteoric rise marks a return to a type of politics that challenges the status quo and provides a clear alternative to the governing Conservatives. Though his detractors, including a number of high-profile former Labour leaders, point to his old-school ideas and socialist politics as being poorly suited to the modern day, it is his difference and the sincerity of his beliefs that many supporters say excites them about his candidacy.

Indeed, there is a perceived integrity to his politics that is appealing to many in an age of orchestrated sound bites and rehearsed outrage. His views, whatever one thinks of them, have changed little over the past thirty-two years as a Member of Parliament. Many are drawn to what they see as his authenticity and his non-conformity to mainstream politics. Whether this can be maintained once the honeymoon period wears off and the inevitable difficulties of leadership manifest themselves remains to be seen. Already his policies are being constrained and revisited by the realities of frontbench politics, a desire to keep the party unified, and the need for coherent policies instead of a series of campaign platforms. Rather than being a significant threat, as some in the media have framed it, this shift to the left may be a temporary phase that recalibrates and rehabilitates the Labour party domestically but does little to affect the UK’s international standing in the long term.

With Corbyn leading the opposition it is expected that Labour will engage in a greater debate about the UK’s place in the world and question assumptions that the country has long held as implicit. Fundamental to his approach will be calls for greater humanity in issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis and dialogue with all sides of a conflict, including those with whom we disagree. Reliance on words and not force, and a belief in, arguably, unpalatable political dialogues will inform how Labour repositions its foreign policy. For all colors of the political spectrum (and the UK’s allies), this articulation of a different approach to foreign policy offers an opportunity to reflect on recent experiences and revisit and reassert a convincing vision of the UK’s international relations and the means by which it conducts them. The test of whether Corbyn can develop his vision into a practical and electable opposition platform for national elections has already begun. For the UK’s allies, it will be one to watch.

Claire Yorke is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireYorke.