Sunday 29 April 2018, 9 A.M., BBC One: Andrew Marr took the British public through the Sunday newspapers, as normal. The Sunday Times were reporting its research with Swansea University showing that ‘Russian bots’ tried to swing the 2017 General Election in Jeremy Corbyn’s favour. According to the report, 6,500 Twitter accounts were championing Labour and denigrating the Conservatives during the 2017 campaign.
This was almost reminiscent of post war Britain. In 1924, the Zinoviev telegram helped take down the first Labour government. Who would have believed tying Russia to the British Labour Party was possible after the USSR’s collapse?
Labour of the 1920s and early 1930s is no more. Once intrigued by the construction of socialism, many Labour MPs, like its first Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald, visited the USSR. Their goal was to find information to reinforce their viewpoints and potentially serve as a model for policies. No serious person could imagine Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell or Diane Abbott travelling to Vladimir Putin’s Russia for those reasons.
So little binds Corbyn and Russia’s president. Yet, I do remember watching coverage on Rossiya 1 the day Corbyn was electedLabour leader. The reporter claimed that only one media outlet in Britain was fair to Corbyn: RT. Make of that what you will, but Corbyn never seemed liked a natural ally of Putin to even his most cynical opponents.
The Russian state is, of course, far different to its Soviet predecessor, as is its experience with Britain’s political parties. Moreover, it is far from obvious which political party has had a better relationship with Russia following the USSR’s collapse. Certainly, the relationship has gotten worse under David Cameron (Conservative, 2010 – 2017) and Theresa May (Conservative, 2017 – present). Yet, that does not necessarily make Tony Blair (Labour 1997 – 2007) or Gordon Brown (Labour, 2007 – 2010) any more successful.
John Major (Conservative, 1992 – 1997) backed Yeltsin’s economic reforms, the expansion of NATO and bombing of Kosovo. So too did Blair. All made Russia appear weak on the world stage whilst the state was unable to carry about basic functions at home. Major also attended the funeral of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, with whom he worked closely in the 1990s.
Blair was the first foreign leader to meet with and congratulate Putin on his victory. As Alastair Campbell revealed, Blair thought Putin was ‘someone we can work with’. The initial optimism never manifested, however.
Recalling the words of political analyst, Sergei Utkin, he suggested Labour would be not be the immediate favourite. Before the General Election 2015, Utkin told The Guardian: “In general the Conservatives are a known evil [in Russia], so even if our relations are not so good there will be an expectation that they won’t get any worse…” In case you missed it, that was an endorsement. Either way, the 2015 General Election was low down on Russia’s agenda. Most ordinary Russians do not care about British politics, either. Cameron was largely unknown, let alone Ed Miliband.
So, what is different about Corbyn and 2017?
Corbyn has not spent a lot of time discussing Russia. Or Putin for that matter. Never mind the average Briton, most Labour members could not explain the party’s current stance on Russia. Corbyn has recently said that he would do business with Putin, and challenge him on human rights. Moreover, his Shadow Chancellor, McDonnell, also proposed an ‘oligarch levy’ to hit Russian tax dodgers. But all of this came after the election.
May and the Conservatives are openly critical of the Russian state and its leadership. Both quickly pointed the finger at the Russian state and Putin over the Skripal poisoning. Corbyn condemned the attack, yet, did not rush to conclude who exactly was responsible – much to the displeasure of some in his party.
If the Russian state does support Corbyn, the reasons why will not be extensive. Corbyn and Putin are very different people. Their backgrounds’ are entirely different as is the way they see the world. I would elaborate, but anyone paying attention can figure out why. Furthermore, Putin has made no public comments about the Labour leader (to the best of our knowledge).
If (and it is a big if) the Russian state does support Corbyn, the most logical reason would be the chance of improving relations. Anglo – Russian relations are at their lowest point in living memory. As mentioned, this decline has only continued under Conservative governments since 2010.
The reality is that Russia and Britain need to have a good relationship – it is in both of their interests. British political parties are irrelevant to Russians and the Kremlin. Russia as a whole wants Britain’s Prime Minister to be someone who will help repair the damage.
When asked whether Russia preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “whom would you prefer: the candidate who has been negative about your country or the one who has not?” This is precisely the point. Although he has not been flattering, neither has Corbyn gone out of his way to criticise Russia and Putin.
In the long term, that may prove a useful strategy. Firstly, Russia is not high on the British public’s priorities. Foreign policy is of little consequence in British general elections (see a previous article I wrote on this topic). Spending time on Russia is a pointless exercise for Corbyn.
With that being said, the next general election is Labour’s to lose. The press and most current MPs are expecting Corbyn to fail in government. Going into Downing Street on bad terms with Putin would not be an auspicious start.
It is anybody’s guess whether Corbyn and Putin would have a good relationship. There is certainly no reason to expect that they will (internet trolls included). Yet, the fact Corbyn has largely steered clear of Russia may give Russians a reason to be cautiously optimistic. But that is the most any reasonable person can assume.