Unbeknownst to most Britons, Russia did, in fact, impact many of the UK’s elections over the course of the twentieth century. Not by physically meddling or favouring one party or candidate over the other. Not even through Soviet propaganda sold in the West. Rather, it was a passive force lurking in the background needing to be acknowledged and dealt with, by one party in particular.
The appearance of the USSR following the October Revolution followed a wave of popularity for socialism across the European continent. At the turn of the century, the general population of Europe was starting to view the nature of the state and its role differently. An increasingly mobile and educated populace expected more social and economic assistance from those in power. They were tired of war and poverty.
In his vastly influential book The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield noted how the British Liberal Party had failed to deal with four crises before the Great War. Among two of them, where socialism is concerned, was the suffragette movement and increasingly militant trade unions.
Most women in Britain at the time were working class, and one reason why the Liberals feared giving them the vote was the electoral self-harm it would cause. A new political party had formed, which many trade unions had now become actively involved in. It was a party who promised to represent the needs of the urban working class. They went from 2 seats in 1900, to 29 in 1906 and then up to 42 in 1910. Following the women’s suffrage, this party’s surge was solidified. The Labour Party was now a major force in British politics.
Though its founding roots came from all different directions, it was a socialist party, who, by 1918, were committed to the “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” The British public know this better as “Clause IV”, which was subsequently dropped by Tony Blair.
Yet, Labour was a reformist socialist party, not a revolutionary one. It did not seek to overthrow capitalism or the British state, but improve it from within. The Communist Party was refused association with the Labour Party, even though one of its founders, Keir Hardie, believed the leftist groups had to unite and work together for the overall betterment of society. However, as Morgan Phillips said in the 1950s, “socialism in Britain owed more to Methodism than Marx”.
Post-war Europe now had established socialist parties, both competing for and already in power, in almost every country. The world’s largest country had raised it to state power, and high ranking Labour Party officials took it upon themselves to visit the land who had overthrown and murdered an autocrat, gone through two revolutions, a Civil War and the Red Terror.
As my friend and mentor, Jonathan Davis, has written extensively on this subject maintains, few ideas of how to implement socialist policies came back with Labour’s hierarchy. Yet, the USSR would impact Labour’s political ideology and policy making for decades to come. Its first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, visited Menshevik Georgia. His government made Britain the first country to formally recognise the USSR. Moreover, the first Labour government was helped brought down by the fraudulent Zinoviev Telegram: the first alleged case of Russian interference in a British election.
Published by the Daily Mail four days before the 1924 General Election, the telegram was alleged to be from Grigory Zinoviev, Moscow’s head of the Communist International. In the letter, Zinoviev spoke of a possible Communist revolution in Great Britain. This, no doubt, aided the Conservatives at a time of rather sensitive relations between Britain and the USSR. A trade agreement was on the table, and Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) was labouring. Historians are divided on the actual impact of the letter, but it cannot be denied that it affected the psychology of the Labour Party, who felt a serious injustice and foul tactics had hurt them electorally.
The hardened attitude of the British public to the USSR continued, and this aided the Conservative Party. For many election campaigns to come, it would associate Labour with Soviet socialism. This is something Labour’s second Prime Minister sought to handle. In 1937, at the time of the Stalin Purges, Clement Attlee publicly rejected the USSR as a suitable model for socialism. As my mentor writes, this confirmed Labour as a social democratic party in practice.
That being said, every Labour manifesto until 1992 contained the word ‘socialism’. By deleting Clause IV from Labour’s doctrine, Blair followed the lead of Spain’s first socialist Prime Minister after the Franco dictatorship, Felipe Gonzalez. In 1982, Gonzalez insisted on erasing “Marxism” from the PSOE’s manifesto, on account that it would hurt their electability. The Communist Party of Spain under the leadership of Santiago Carillo, a self professed Stalinist, performed poorly in elections, despite initial hopes of becoming a major political force. It was a time when tensions between the West and USSR started boiling again, following a short lived period of ‘détente’. Whilst Spain would not join NATO for another five years, the newly established liberal democracy had to confirm its commitment to this ideology, which a Marxist party in government could not.
Pacifism and de-nuclearisation was always an issue within the Labour Party that worked against them during the Cold War. After a meeting between Labour leader Neil Kinnock and US President Ronald Reagan before the 1987 General Election, the White House expressed huge concern over Labour’s position on nuclear weapons. It was an easier sell for Conservatives to be the party of national defense – a card Theresa May recently played against Jeremy Corbyn, who opposed the renewal of trident missiles.
Blair by contrast had to adapt to a post-communist world where socialism was a dirty word, and neo-liberal economics had won the day. He and US President Bill Clinton championed the “third way” between the free-market capitalism of Reagan and Thatcher, and the state-led ideal of the USSR. Although the third way was not an ideology, it was based on a specific set of ideas and ideals, formulated by thinkers like the sociologist Anthony Giddens, who advocated introducing a “different framework” that avoided “the bureaucratic, top-down government favoured by the old left and the aspiration of the right to dismantle government altogether”.
Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, we can see a new battleground for alternative visions of the future being laid. There has been a renewed interest in Marxism and Keynesianism. The election of Jacinda Arden in New Zealand, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US and others suggest people have grown tired and weary of neo-liberalism. But where Russia is starting to impact modern British elections is connected to the state of liberal democracy failing to effectively respond to the crisis of 2008.
Cynicism about politicians is widespread across Europe. According to a Pew poll, 63% of Slovaks think most elected officials do not care what they think. In Hungary, it is 71% and in Bulgaria, 78%. The figures in France and Britain are 76% and 70%, respectively. Whilst Europeans are now freer and richer than ever before, inequality is growing. Most Europeans feel a lack of an economic safety net and sense of togetherness that existed in the Cold War era.
Russia’s 1993 constitution established a liberal democratic framework, which Putin’s government still operates within. But the experience of a free-market with no rules and disappointment that capitalism brought it used by the Russian state to advocate for a managed democracy where the ‘wrong’ candidates are not chosen, thus, they cannot disrupt the progress made or undermine any achievements.
But Russia is different to the average European country in this regard. It never had an experience of democracy and had to handle the transition from Communism differently. It could not just explain Communism away as a military occupation. The expectations could not meet the reality; hence, Putin is a champion of pragmatism and gradualism. It is also a government who does not disassociate itself with the USSR, either, yet still condemns its darkest chapters.
As can be seen by Russia’s foreign policy in the former Communist space, it is trying to present itself as an attractive alternative to the West. The Russian state is perceived to favour politicians like Nigel Farage, among other populist leaders in Europe, who might be more friendly to its interests. This, it must be stressed, is Russia’s response to feeling a historical injustice and what it considers to be poor treatment by its Western counterparts.
The average Russian knows little about British politics. Most could not even care less who becomes Prime Minister. Britain does not impact Russian foreign policy making to any real extent, and Labour’s position on Russia is not even known by its own party members. Corbyn has said he would challenge Putin on human rights, but has otherwise not mentioned him publicly.
As an election is less than a month away, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has refused to release a dossier containing information on Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum and 2017 General Election. A report came out Friday about huge sums of Russian money funding the Tories just after multi-millionaire MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg said the (mostly working class) victims of the Greenfell Tower fire “lacked common sense”.
Whenever a British election arises, Russia has been something to be treated with caution and suspicion. A country that a leader needs to be prepared to ‘handle properly’. During a TV hustings for the 2015 election, journalist Jeremy Paxman told former Labour leader Ed Miliband “a joke” he had heard “from a bloke on the tube the other day”:
Paxman: Ed Miliband goes into a room with Vladimir Putin and the doors close. They open two minutes later, Vladimir Putin is standing there smiling, and Ed Miliband is on the floor in pieces.
Miliband: Was that David Cameron [who told you that]?
Paxman: No it wasn’t, but you understand the point, here? People think you’re not tough enough!
Miliband lost the election. Following the annexation of Crimea and ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, Syria and the West’s inability to solve these crises, Miliband was painted as ‘not the guy’ to solve it or stand up to Britain’s foes. Corbyn is definitely not a ‘tough guy’; he makes jam from plants he grows in his allotment and likes manhole covers.
How Corbyn and Putin would get on if he were to become Prime Minister, remains to be seen. What can be said is that both men see the world very differently. Corbyn is a foreign policy novice and champion of peace. Putin wants to protect Russia’s sphere of influence and be treated as a great power. Corbyn does not have an answer or developed opinion on that. It may work to his detriment over the next few weeks.