Labour needs to clarify its defence policy

Originally published on Left Foot Forward on 18/11/15
Jeremy Corbyn needs to make his position on NATO clear and commit to supporting the principle of collective defence.

During the leadership campaign the North Atlantic Alliance was a clear point of contention between Corbyn and the three other candidates. Corbyn’s desire to withdraw from NATO and his view that the military alliance is to blame for Russian aggression in Ukraine are well known. 

His supporters have cited this as an areas where he could compromise to unite the party. Corbyn himself has vaguely talked about Britain having a different relationship within NATO rather than leaving. In a Channel 4 debate he criticised NATO’s ‘excessive expansion’ and insisted that Britain should ‘argue quite strongly in NATO for a more realistic view of what its role is’.

NATO’s aims have changed since the end of the Cold War and its Out-Of-Area Operations have attracted controversy. From the Horn of Africa to the former Yugoslavia, NATO has engaged in peacekeeping and crisis management. While it would do us no favours with our Trans-Atlantic allies nor would it necessarily be the right thing to do, it is not impossible to redefine some of these aims.

However, Corbyn’s problem with NATO goes to the organisations core because he doesn’t appear willing to uphold the principles of a collective defence relationship. Article 5 of the NATO Charter states that ‘an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies’. The UK cannot remain in NATO and not abide by this founding principle.

Collective security kept Western Europe united, free and safe throughout the Cold War. It still remains important as Putin’s Russia becomes increasingly expansionary. Today the existence of NATO is vital for member states in Eastern Europe whose security is threatened by renewed aggression from Moscow.

One of the most important reasons for a North Atlantic Alliance is to deter acts of aggression. However, collective defence does not work if the threat of a collective military response is not credible.

Previous comments and statements made by Corbyn would undermine NATO’s credibility. Corbyn’s refusal to support the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the strongest example of this. As it is the only time in NATO’s history that Article 5 has been invoked following the 9/11 attacks. 

During the leadership contest Corbyn was constantly evasive when it came to security matters. When asked directly what he would do if there were Russian tanks running through Lithuania, he replied ‘Well they’re not running through Lithuania’ and instead talked about trying to prevent that situation occurring. In the last leadership debate he was asked if there was a situation where he could envisage deploying British military forces. He vaguely replied ‘sure there are some but I can’t think of any at the moment’.

He is now Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition and does not have the luxury of protesting on the backbenches. Labour’s leadership needs to clarify its defence policy.

So what happens if we have to invade Russia?

It was Chris Bryant who first asked this question when he was initially offered the position of Shadow Defence Secretary. Corbyn wasn’t prepared to have that conversation even with someone he wanted in his Shadow Cabinet. But it’s a question he’s going to have to answer.

Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet and backbenchers will most likely force him to commit to remaining in NATO like they have done with the EU. Corbyn can’t carry on being evasive, he’s in the real world now not engaging in a student debate. If Labour’s position is to stay in NATO, Corbyn must also commit to supporting the principles of collective defence. That means supporting the deployment of British military force if an NATO ally is attacked.

You can destroy an ideology on the battlefield

Originally published on The Gerasites on 21/07/15 
Too often the old adage ‘you cannot destroy an idea’ is used as an excuse to do nothing when liberal values are confronted by extremism. The phrase has been resurrected once again to rebut those advocating increased military action against Islamic State. But history shows us that ideas can be beaten when the people that promote them are challenged.

There is no single explanation for the rise and fall of ideologies but they do come and go. The days when Marxism-Leninism inspired leaders in the Third World are long gone. Its fate tied to the Soviet Union which rapidly fell apart in the later part of the 20th century. The collapse of the USSR and its ideology shows that no matter how repressive a state might be or how enduring its ideology may seem at the time, ideas can quickly become extinct. Let’s hope that political Islam will soon join Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.

The nature of Islamic State’s ideology makes it more difficult to discredit due to its religious dynamic. The ideas behind Islamic jihad are deeply rooted in the history of one of the world’s major faiths. The appeal of this extreme and politicised interpretation of Islam is unlikely to disappear in the near future.

However, one of Islamism most recent manifestations, Islamic State, can be beaten on the battlefield. Pushing Islamic State’s forces back will weaken its appeal. The military defeat of the messenger can shatter the credibility of the message. Prior to political Islam, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser spread Arab Nationalism across West Asia and North Africa. Nasser’s ideology was hugely discredited after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel’s pre-emptive strike landed such a military blow that Nasser prestige and his pan-Arab would never fully recover. 

We can ensure Islamic State’s message sees a similar fate.

Will Labour commit to 2% of GDP on defence?

Originally publish on LabourList on 17/02/2015.
Labour activists don’t knock doors on a Saturday morning to argue for more money for bombs. No party does because voters don’t care that much about defence spending.

The UK’s role in the world is often a low priority for the electorate, rarely are votes gained or lost over a foreign policy decision. War may seem like the exception to this rule, but even the unpopular UK involvement in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein didn’t result in a change of government in 2005.

This isn’t going to be any different in 2015. Labour will rightly fight this election on living standards and the NHS. Some in Labour may feel uneasy about spending money on the military in tough financial times. However, we should commit to retaining NATO’s standard of spending 2% of our GDP on defence. 

Vernon Coaker has talked about a financially responsible Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015. A future Labour government should be prudent with military expenditure. What money is spent on should be tailored to our foreign policy objectives, a subject which needs discussion. However, one thing should be clear and that is that a Labour government will commit to NATO’s minimum defence expenditure threshold.

While other members of the military alliance may not comply with the 2% target, for Labour to renege on this agreement would send the message that Britain no longer wants to be an influential actor on the world stage.

If Labour is a serious party of government then we should commit to this target. As a government we would have the responsibility to protect our citizens and defend our national interests. 2014 was a year of turmoil in the international system. With continued Russian aggression in the Ukraine and Islamic State further destabilising the Middle East, this year doesn’t look like it will be any less dangerous.

We shouldn’t lean towards isolationism, turning our back on the world isn’t going to make us safer. It also means we turn our backs on the oppressed and suffering across the globe.
As a democratic socialist party we also want to see our country play a positive role in the world, spreading the rights we take for granted. Labour’s always championed international development and its right we support overseas aid.

But the United Kingdom should be more than a glorified aid agency. Food, health and education are important but so is freedom of speech, the right to vote and freedom from slavery. Unfortunately, sometimes these rights can’t be obtained through handouts.
A Labour government can use the military to change parts of the world for the better. Kosovo and Sierra Leone are widely accepted examples of this, while other foreign interventions are more controversial.

The current government has complied with NATO standards of defence spending. Despite this, the Defence Select Committee finds that the UK has failed to effectively combat the rise of Islamic State. This group threatens our national security as it could become a safe haven for terrorists. Islamic State fighters also flagrantly abuse the human rights of the civilians who live under their fascist caliphate. If we can’t deal with a threat like IS now, what chance do we have if we further cut away at our military.

Spending two percent of our GDP on defence is a target most Labour supporters and members of the public don’t care about. However, a commitment to maintain this NATO agreement is important. It will ensure that Britain, under a future Labour government, won’t be marginalised, can challenge foreign threats and act as a force for good in the world.

Selfish Scottish ‘Socialism’

The Ashcroft poll that predicted an SNP landslide in Scotland was thoroughly depressing. Disappointing because it showed Labour getting hit hard in its historic fiefdom, potentially leading to five more years of Cameron. But also because it could be signalling the beginning of the end of our country.

This swing is a likely a result of Sturgeon positioning the SNP to the left of Labour.

But how left-wing can a bunch of petty nationalists really be? What’s progressive about creating borders between working people? Using ‘our oil’ for ‘our people’ seems selfish not socialist.

Labour wants to tackle inequality across our country. Alleviating child poverty in Glasgow is just as important as tackling it in Birmingham. It doesn’t matter what side of Hadrian’s Wall some lives. The shared struggles we face should unite us, we should not allow the devise politics of the SNP to divide people against each other.

I wouldn’t rule out a coalition, I’m a pragmatist. But I really don’t want to see Labour get in bed with Salmond.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how left-wing the SNP might appear to be, their desire to destroy our country is something we reject.

A Pointless Debate?

Cameron has got what he wants, the TV debates have descended into a farce. 

It was stretch to include the Green Party. The broadcasters rightly concluded that they were not a major party. Unfortunately UKIP are a significant force in British politics after winning the European elections and large numbers of council seats.

As a Labour supporter, some may argue that I have a vested interested in keeping any party to the left of Labour out of the debates. Not true. I more than happy to take on the Greens. I’m not one of these lefties that thinks the Greens are great but out of loyalty votes Labour. Rather I don’t think they have creditable policies or the people to govern the country and should be challenged on this.

Having the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP in a debate could be good for Labour. It will shift the discussion to issues that social democrats really care about, instead of a debate dominated by Farage banging on about Europe. So in the respect this news is welcome.

The only problem is it really won’t be a debate. How can it be? With seven parties (not to mention possibly the DUP and Respect) and only one hour and bit. I can’t imagine there will much opportunity for discussion or in-depth scrutiny.

It might make for interesting TV but it means the proposed head-to-head between the two potential Prime Minsters is really is the one to watch.