A deviation from the mainstream? Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion

A deviation from the mainstream? Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
13 October 2015

In a recent blog for the Political Studies Association James Strong, a Fellow in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues:

“A quick perusal of [the new Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s track record on foreign and defence policy issues highlights three key areas where his views deviate from the mainstream, over NATO, military intervention and the Trident nuclear weapons system.”

Strong goes on to flesh out his thesis, comparing polling data to Corbyn’s positions on a number of foreign policy questions including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2011 intervention in Libya, the 2013 plan to attack Syria, the bombing of Iraq that started in 2014 and Trident.

As Strong’s argument echoes much of the media coverage of Corbyn, it is worth taking some time to stress test his thesis. Below I highlight a number of serious problems with Strong’s analysis.

Strong chooses to omit any mention of Afghanistan

Shockingly, Strong chooses not to mention the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. With Britain’s combat role formally ending in 2014, the war in Afghanistan was one of the longest campaigns in British military history, with over 450 British soldiers dying.

What was the outcome of the UK’s 13-year occupation of Afghanistan? In his 2013 book ‘An Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War’, Frank Ledwidge, a former Naval reserve military intelligence officer who served as a civilian advisor in Helmand, notes 2,600 British troops were wounded in the conflict, and more than 5,000 have been “psychologically injured”. He estimates the cost of the British intervention to be £37 billion, the deployment leading to the destabilisation of most of Helmand province, hundreds of civilian deaths and an increase in the terror threat to the UK. By 2014 the New York Times was quoting Helmandis as saying “the Taliban have never been stronger in the province.”

We can only speculate why Strong chose to omit any reference to Afghanistan, but one wonders if it has anything to do with the fact that Corbyn’s opposition to the war and his belief that British forces should have been withdrawn earlier than 2014 has been broadly in line with public opinion for a number of years.

Strong is selective and disingenuous when it comes to some of the polling evidence

On Trident, Strong argues Corbyn’s position is “not representative of the electorate as a whole” as he “favours nuclear disarmament while his countrymen (including even the Scots) largely do not.” This difference – along with others – is “large, profound and likely to be problematic”, according to Strong.

In support of his assertion Strong cites a January 2015 YouGov poll which shows just 25% of people favour total disarmament, and an Independent article quoting Glasgow University’s Dr Phillips O’Brien as saying there is “no convincing statistical evidence” that the majority of Scots are actually opposed to Trident.

Citing one poll, as Strong does on Trident, is, very obviously, a deeply flawed way to gain an understanding of national public opinion. John Curtice, a Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University who writes about electoral behaviour and researches political and social attitudes, makes the obvious point that the result of a poll “depends a bit on how you word the question”. Indeed, in the same January 2015 BBC article Curtis notes “For the most part, the majority of polls suggest that there is a smallish plurality opposed to the renewal of Trident.”

Surveying 20 opinion polls on Trident in 2013, Nick Ritchie, a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York, notes the “Polls suggest British opinion may have moved from majority support for replacing Trident to majority support against replacement.” Ritchie further explains that the polling data shows the vast majority of people do not consider Trident to be an important political issue, with “only a small section of the electorate… likely to allow the issue of nuclear weapons to influence their vote in a general election”.

Presuming Curtice and Ritchie are correct, Corbyn reflects the view of most people who give an opinion on Trident, though the issue is not very high on voters priorities in terms of choosing who to vote for. Hardly the “large”, “profound” and “problematic” difference Strong suggests.

Turning to NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 (which Corbyn opposed inside and outside parliament), Strong notes “the public were divided on the prospect of action against the Gaddafi regime”. To support his argument Strong links to an article summarising the results of two polls taken in the very early stages of the conflict: a YouGov poll which found people supported the military action against Libya by 45% to 36%, and a ComRes poll that “found almost the exact opposite ‒ 35% supported the action but 43% opposed it.”

Strong doesn’t mention them but there were other polls taken during this period, such as two polls by the British Election Survey analysed by six political scientists in a 2014 article published by in British Journal of Political and International Relations. The first poll, taken just after hostilities began, found 30 percent of people approved of British involvement “whereas a plurality 44 percent disapproved”. A month later just 23 percent supported the British involvement with 50 percent opposed. Writing for PSA’s Political Insight blog the six specialists noted “the British population… always opposed Libyan intervention.”

However, let’s assume that Strong’s assertion that the public was broadly divided over the Libyan intervention is correct. The problem with his analysis is that it limits itself to taking the temperature of public opinion at one particularly heightened point of the conflict. A serious analysis would surely expand on this because public support for military intervention tends to be highest at the beginning of a conflict when members of the British armed forces are perceived to be in harm’s way, government and media pro-intervention propaganda is at its height and the outcome of the conflict is uncertain.

The key question, then, is surely this: if the pollster had told those being polled that the NATO intervention would go beyond its initial remit and help to illegally overthrow the Libyan government, be a chief cause of ongoing violent chaos in Libya which would destabilise surrounding nations, empower extremists and play a central role in the refugee crisis – all widely accepted by mainstream scholars as consequences of the intervention – would support for the war have increased or decreased? We don’t need to guess. In October 2011 – just after the Libyan leader was killed and Libyan government forces effectively defeated – 49 percent of the public told YouGov it was right to take military action. By February 2015 – when the disastrous impact of the intervention was better known – YouGov found support for the intervention had plummeted to 30 percent, with 33 percent opposed.

The same broadly applies to Afghanistan. Corbyn opposed the attack on Afghanistan from the start – which set him against the broad support the war had with the British public. However, by the later years of the British intervention and immediately after the official British withdrawal a majority of the British public opposed the intervention.

One can therefore make two important conclusions about Corbyn, public opinion and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. First it is clear the public mood shifted as the public learned more about the conflicts and the negative effect British forces invariably had in each instance. Second, it is clear Corbyn has been an astute analyst in terms of opposing three wars that have had a disastrous effect on the local population, British troops and the wider region, with large sections of the public eventually coming round to his broad position of opposition in each case.

Strong refuses to engage with the likelihood that Corbyn’s election as Labour leader will itself shift public opinion on foreign policy

Simply comparing current public opinion with Corbyn’s publicly stated views on foreign policy, while of some interest, is a simplistic and limited form of analysis. Public opinion shifts constantly and is influenced by various factors, including changing levels of knowledge. Therefore, a more nuanced and mature analysis would highlight the fact that the narrow spectrum of political and media debate in the UK has largely presented the general public with an equally narrow and limited understanding of foreign policy and possible policy options. To take one example, in contrast to the two polls that found the public divided on Libya, fully 98 percent of MPs who voted in the parliamentary debate on the intervention supported the attack. All three of the main political parties supported the intervention. And with the media mapping their spectrum of acceptable opinion and debate to the divisions in parliament, the vast majority of national newspapers also supported the intervention. Anti-war voices and inconvenient facts (such as the attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully that were ignored by NATO and the indiscriminate bombardment of Sirte in the final stages of the conflict), were thus sidelined and did not comprise a significant part of the public debate. The same is broadly the case with Trident. The three main political parties have traditionally supported the retention of some form of Trident and far as I am aware the only national newspaper to support the outright scrapping of Trident is the tiny circulation Morning Star.

Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, if he is given a fair hearing, should significantly widen the debate on foreign policy, bringing long excluded voices, arguments and facts into the public debate. Many of the issues Strong claims Corbyn does not have the support of the public on will now have a strong advocate who has a significant voice in the media. This process occurred during the Labour leadership race itself, with many commentators noticing Corbyn’s candidacy opened up space to discuss issues such as rail nationalisation, whether Blair should face a war crimes trial and the nationalisation of energy – topics unlikely to be have been on the agenda if Corbyn hadn’t received the 35 nominations that allowed him on the ballot.

It is likely a wider debate and a more informed argument will shift public opinion towards Corbyn on many issues. Take Trident. It is likely the public would be less supportive of Trident if they were fully aware of the frightening near misses and many accidents that have occurred over the years. The connection between increased knowledge of foreign policy and what could broadly be termed an anti-war politics is surely confirmed by the fact that as of 2012 the British armed forces employed over 600 people in “communication-related activities” (aka propaganda) with a multi-million pound marketing and communication budget. Commenting on media access in Afghanistan, in 2009 the Guardian’s Luke Harding noted the Ministry of Defence (MoD) “manipulate the parcelling-out of embeds to suit their own ends.” The Sun’s Defence editor concurred: “Downing Street and the Foreign Office are incredibly restrictive about what comes out of Afghanistan.” Harding goes on to explain what this means for public opinion: “We have been constantly told that everything is fluffy and good – and we, and the public, have been lied to.” As a senior British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 2008 “There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons. If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”

Strong’s focus on individual opinion polls on individual issues fails to engage with the longer term trends on public opinion and foreign policy

Since parliament voted against the UK taking military action in Syria in August 2013, there have been a number of reports of senior politicians and military figures deeply concerned about the public’s opposition to military interventions abroad. Speaking about the British armed forces in December 2013, Chief of Defence Staff Sir Nicholas Houghton noted “the purposes to which they have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.” General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff from 2010-14, provided a blunter assessment earlier this year: “Our national appetite for military intervention has been diminished by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a sense of campaign fatigue, which is reflected in low political appetite for the UK to engage to protect our longer term interests.” The former Defence Minister Lord Browne concurs, noting last year “The British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice”. (As an aside, it’s interesting to compare these quotes from the military’s top brass with Strong’s description of Corbyn as someone “deeply sceptical about the utility of military force as a tool of British foreign policy.”)

Some polling evidence suggests the military and politicians are right to be worried. After reminding respondents of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, a February 2013 ICM poll found 48 percent of people believed “military interventions solve little, create enemies and generally do more harm than good”, while 45 percent believe that “through its armed forces, Britain generally acts as a force for good in the world”. Similarly a June 2013 Opinium poll found 69 percent of people believe that the UK should restrict the military to protecting UK territory and providing humanitarian aid in times of crisis.

Like with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the British public’s view of British military intervention abroad – increasingly sceptical and unsupportive – seems to be moving closer to Corbyn’s long-held position.

Strong fails to mention international law and global public opinion

Though it is perhaps outside the parameters of Strong’s blog it is surely unwise to discuss British foreign policy and public opinion in a vacuum. For example, on Iraq and Trident and the recent drone strike in Syria Corbyn strongly supports the idea that Britain should adhere to international law and act with the support of the United Nations. Similarly polling evidence suggests there is broad support amongst the British public for the government to abide by international law and to act with the support of the United Nations. During the run up to the war in Iraq in 2003 polling showed the invasion would be far less popular it did not have the support of the United Nations. So, the key questions are these: would there be more or less support for Trident among the public if it was more widely known that the UK is clearly contravening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons? Would there be more or less support for the proposed UK bombing of Syria if the media persistently raised questions about whether the intervention was in accordance with international law?

Conclusions

Though public opinion is often complex, contradictory and constantly changing, we can see Corbyn’s positions on the big foreign policy questions has the support of significant sections of public opinion, and majorities on Iraq and Afghanistan – arguably the two biggest foreign policy questions since 2001. And the evidence suggests Corbyn should be able to increase his level of support with the public if he is successful in opening up the narrow spectrum of what passes for political debate in this country, reframing the conversation to get previously largely ignored voices, arguments and facts into the national conversation.

This is an exciting and uncertain time in British politics. In their engagement with wider politics academics can, like Strong, selectively quote polls, decontextualize, obfuscate and therefore help to shut down honest and informed discussion. Or they can use their expertise and experience in good faith to enlighten the general public and help to inform and widen the national debate on this hugely important subject.

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