British Labour’s Russia Problem

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  • 23 April 2021

The British Labour Party were never short of ‘Russia problems’ in the twentieth century. Its first government was brought down by the fraudulent Zinoviev telegram whereas its second, and most successful, helped start the Cold War. But in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn was accused of apologising for Vladimir Putin.

Following the Skripal poisoning, Corbyn called for ‘absolute evidence of guilt’ from the Russian state rather than an outright condemnation. Even when he did point the finger at Vladimir Putin, he did so gently, much to the displeasure of his own party.

Since the Blair years, Labour’s policy towards Russia needed a jeweler’s eye to locate. Ed Miliband and Corbyn hardly ever mentioned Putin or Russia whilst Leader of the Opposition. Its last threeelection manifestos barely referenced Russia; in 2019 it did so just once: “Boris Johnson refuses to publish the report into possible foreign interference by Russia in UK democracy”.

Labour did not even promise to release to the report if elected.

In some respects, steering clear of Russia is understandable; British elections are not won on foreign policy issues – ask Tony Blair. But when western democracies have had plenty to say, Labour’s response is usually quieter than crickets (who actually make some noise).

Sir Keir Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, took over from Jeremy Corbyn in April 2020. He has struck a harsher tone with Russia, yet in rather a quiet and safe manner. In a speech at Chatham House in early 2020, Starmer said the rise of authoritarianism in Russia poses a real threat to global stability. He did condemn the Salisbury poisoning on the BBC’s Question Time, and after the release of the Russia Report, claimed that Boris Johnson had deliberately suppressed its findings (it was completed before the 2019 General Election and withheld for six months).

Beyond that, Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet have said extraordinarily little. Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary’s response to the Russia Report was just three sentences long. Labour’s response to the poisoning and arrest of Aleksei Navalny was confined to a few of its members tweeting, and the reader missed all of them.

To be clear, I am not saying Labour should be harsher on Russia. But Russian donors to the Conservative Party, disinformation during two referendums and general elections and a Russian media mogul receiving a peerage ought to have been fertile ground for Labour to make a little political hay from.

So why has it not? As The Spectator put it, don’t rock the boat anymore than you have to!

COVID-19 has suspended politics as normal. It should have given Labour a much bigger stick with which to hit an incompetent government over the head, but the vaccine rollout and threat of the Union breaking up also limited its ability to do that.

There would have been risks involved in tackling Russia through the pandemic, and it seems that Starmer viewed it too great to handle. But the opposition is supposed to look like a government in waiting and Labour has little in the way of a foreign policy agenda to speak of. Starmer promised to give a speech in the coming weeks on how he sees Britain’s role in the world, and as leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, this is not a big ask. The trouble is he still has not.

Labour lost the last four general elections for largely failing to engage with British society as it is, build a broad coalition of leftist and centrist voters, and,in the process, ignored parts of the country it needed to win, namely, the aspirational and consumer-orientated middle class. Its confused Brexit stance made that a lot worse – but so did its leaders.

Labour’s membership struggles to admit this, but most Britons could not envision Corbyn and Miliband as Prime Minister. They came across as weak and indecisive tothe majority of voters. In the 2015 General Election, Ed Miliband was mocked in a TV-hustings for not being tough enough to deal with Putin. Corbyn wanted to get rid of the trident missiles that point at Russia; as Michael Foot and George Lansbury discovered, pacifism does not win over the British electorate.

Starmer came in with a much better public image, even winning Jeremy Clarkson over. What he has yet to do is explain to the British public who and what Labour is. To chuckling effect, the Liberal Democrats admitted their surprise this week at Starmer being unable to make massive headwinds in the polls, even with increased evidence of Tory cronyism and lobbying.

Recent events in Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and also Russia pave the conditions for a larger international response, and one where a human rights lawyer should be in his element. Even something as simple as outlining whether he views Russia as bigger threat to China or not would make Starmer and Labour look more serious than the party of Russian moneythat benefitted from electoral interference.

Labour’s lack of a defined Russia (and foreign) policy is revealing of much deeper problems in the party’s messaging and PR. But it now has a real opportunity to develop aresponse and policy agenda for the post-Soviet space, a region that could boil over in the next few years. Asserting some foreign policy credentials might reassure Britons Labour will restore the UK’s global reputation – but don’t get your hopes up!

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