A behind-the-scenes battle over Labour’s foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
9 January 2018
Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Emily Thornberry has been one of his key allies.
After serving as the shadow secretary of state for defence and shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, Thornberry has been shadow foreign secretary since June 2016.
The Islington South and Finsbury MP has proven to be an effective politician, gaining plaudits for her performance at the dispatch box standing in for Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions and for ambushing Tory minister Michael Fallon on The Andrew Marr Show about the time he attended a reception with Bashar al-Assad to celebrate the Syrian president winning an election.
However, though they have largely been ignored by Labour supporters and left-wing commentators, Thornberry’s comments last year about Israel are very concerning.
Speaking at a November Jewish News/Bicom Balfour 100 event, she noted Israel “still stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particular in respect of women and LGBT communities, in a region where oppression, discrimination and inequality is too often the norm.”
A December speech she gave at the Labour Friends of Israel annual dinner “could have been written by a pro-Israel lobbyist,” argued Asa Winstanley from Electronic Intifada.
Her statement that it was Israeli “pioneers … who made the deserts bloom” repeated one of the founding and “racist myth[s]” of Israel, Winstanley went on to note.
Amazingly, at the end of the speech she described the former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres as “a hero of the left, of the state of Israel and of the cause of peace.”
In contrast, in 2005, US dissident Noam Chomsky called Peres “an iconic mass murderer,” presumably for his role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel and for being head of government when Israel shelled a United Nations compound in Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians.
After conducting an investigation, Amnesty International concluded the attack was intentional.
In both speeches Thornberry highlighted the denial of rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories, which makes her statement about Israel being “a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy” all the more laughable.
As the title of a 2015 article in the Independent newspaper by the academic Yara Hawari explained, “Israel is supposedly the only democracy in the Middle East, yet 4.5 million Palestinians under its control can’t vote.”
“The everyday lives of Palestinians [in the West Bank] is controlled by the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces]. And it is done brutally,” Hawari noted.
“Movement is rigidly controlled, access to resources is denied and Israeli military incursions into villages and towns are frequent.
“Palestinians see violent settler rampages on a daily basis, which often involve the burning of agricultural land and physical assaults on anyone who gets in their way.”
Famously, former US president Jimmy Carter labelled the Israeli occupation an example of “apartheid.”
Michael Lynk, the UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories, recently noted the “suffocating economic and travel blockade” Israel maintains “has driven Gaza back to the dark ages,” with “more than 60 per cent of the population of Gaza … reliant upon humanitarian aid.”
Israel is a “settler colonial state that flouts international law on a daily basis by oppressing the Palestinians in varying states of occupation,” Hawari concluded.
“And it does so with European and American complicity. The shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East? Far from it.”
Thornberry’s remarks aren’t that surprising if you consider her political career.
Until Corbyn won the Labour leadership, her politics and voting record fit comfortably with the more liberal, often interventionist, section of the British Establishment.
She was, as the New Statesman reported in 2016, “one of [Ed] Miliband’s inner circle.” As shadow attorney general, she voted for Britain’s disastrous military intervention in Libya in 2011 and, in 2014, for Britain to conduct air strikes on Isis in Iraq.
Turning to domestic politics, she abstained on the 2013 vote about the coalition government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseeker’s Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.
And she abstained again on the 2015 vote for the Welfare Bill, which leaked government figures showed would push 40,000 more children below the poverty line. As Tony Benn used to say, politicians can be divided into two categories, signposts and weathercocks.
Thornberry’s politics are important because, as Dr David Wearing noted last year, the “anti-militarist and anti-imperialist” Corbyn “has a real chance of being our next prime minister.”
“Not only is that new in Britain, I think it’s new internationally,” the teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a Media Democracy podcast.
“I can’t think of any time in the last several decades where it has been a realistic possibility that the leader of a UN security council permanent member, a great power, a great capitalist Western power, could be in the next few years an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist. I don’t think there is a precedent for that. So it’s really huge. It’s a challenge to the foreign policy elite, it’s a challenge to conventional wisdom.”
At the same time, writing in June 2017, British historian Mark Curtis noted that, although Labour’s general election manifesto made “several clear breaks from current UK foreign policy,” there was also evidence that, “if the manifesto is implemented in its current form, it is likely to still promote extremism in UK foreign policy” (Curtis considers much of Britain’s bipartisan post-1945 foreign policy to be extreme).
Curtis highlights pledges to “support development and innovation” in the defence industry and maintain the Tories’ 2 per cent military spending commitment, along with half-hearted statements on the so-called “special relationship” with the US, international development and Israel-Palestine.
Incidentally, Curtis described Thornberry’s “positioning” on foreign affairs in an October 2017 interview she did with Middle East Eye as “basically Blairite.”
There is, then, a battle over the nature of Labour’s foreign policy — not least over Trident nuclear weapons — within the Parliamentary Labour Party, of course, but also within the shadow cabinet and probably within Corbyn’s core circle itself.
This ongoing struggle probably provides the context behind the Guardian’s recent feature-length interview with Thornberry, with the liberal organ taking the unusual step of advertising the interview over a week before it appeared in the newspaper.
Why? As the interviewer noted, Thornberry is “widely tipped to be the party’s next leader,” but after Corbyn led Labour’s extraordinary general election campaign, direct assaults on his leadership, like the attempted coup in 2016, are no longer viable.
The Guardian’s promotion of Thornberry may well herald a switch to a subtler, longer-term strategy that looks ahead to the next Labour leadership contest.
After all, Jezza isn’t getting any younger. Thornberry is the perfect candidate for Guardian “centrist” types who would like to neuter Corbynism — someone who can gain the backing of significant numbers of Corbyn supporters while at the same time diluting the movement’s relative radicalism by returning the Labour Party to safer, Establishment-friendly ground.
With all this in mind, it is important that all those who want to see an anti-imperialist, humane and sane British foreign policy raise their voices against Thornberry when she glosses over Israel’s abysmal human rights record and tacks too closely to the Establishment line.
The basic tenets of Labour’s foreign policy need to be argued about, settled and publicised right now, rather than being fought over in office under intense pressure from the media, military and opposing political parties.
Remaining silent — perhaps in the belief that criticising Thornberry will weaken Corbyn — is surely short-term politicking that will only increase the chances of Corbyn’s Labour Party disappointing if it gains power.