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2 March 2022

The Labour left needs to get serious on defence

Anybody who wakes up angrier at Starmer than at Putin should think hard about whether Labour politics is for them.

By Paul Mason

As Kyiv enters the phase of street fighting, we don’t yet know the scale of the catastrophe facing the West. It is possible that we simply end up with a partitioned and occupied Ukraine. But it is also possible that, having established proof of concept, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping send their tanks to hoover up all the geopolitical loose ends, from the Baltic to Taiwan.

If they were inclined to do so, only three things could deter them: Nato, its nuclear deterrents and the threat of internal revolt.

The misleadership of the Conservative Party over Britain’s defence and security policy is well-documented. It slashed defence spending, shrank the army, took money from Putin’s oligarchs and fantasised about an “Indo-Pacific tilt”. It scorned Labour’s demands to focus on defending Europe and reversing defence cuts. 

Here, however, I want to examine the actions of a group of people without power, but with a lot of influence. Here are their fatally mistaken words:

“Claims that Russia is the aggressor should be treated sceptically. The destabilisation of the entire region comes from the continued eastward expansion of Nato.” Diane Abbott, Stop the War rally, 11 February.

“The British government has sent arms to Ukraine and deployed further troops to Eastern Europe, moves which serve no purpose other than inflaming tensions and indicating disdain for Russian concerns.” 11 Labour MPs, Stop the War Petition, 17 February

“Today, it is Nato that is trying to seize Ukraine by means of moving Nato right up to Russia’s borders.” Andrew Murray, Stop the War website, 10 December 2021.

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“Look at the documents [Putin’s draft security treaties]. They’re absolutely sensible. They’re absolutely normal: limits to Nato enlargement, no placement of missiles that could threaten others… I don’t think there’ll be an invasion, that was never on the cards.” Richard Sakwa, Stop the War rally, 11 February.

Once the tanks rolled in, Stop the War condemned the invasion. The 11 Labour MPs withdrew their names from the petition. Stop the War is now calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops, though it cannot bring itself to utter one word of support for Ukraine’s resistance, nor for sanctions, nor to turn up at any demonstration organised by London’s Ukrainian community. 

But in the run up to the war, Stop the War was a dynamo of misleadership. The mistake made by these MPs and academics was not simply to play down the threat of invasion: many experts on the other side of politics got that wrong. The mistake was to identify Britain as the aggressor; to reduce Ukraine and its people to the status of pawns in an inter-imperialist game, with no agency of their own; to continually make the case that Russia was the wronged party, with legitimate security concerns; and to oppose arming the victims. And these are big mistakes.

Those who know the history of the British left in the 1930s will recognise this as a near-exact replay. The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald pleaded with Europe to “meet Germany’s demands and allay her anxieties about security.” George Lansbury resigned the Labour leadership over its support for sanctions against fascist Italy. As for the Communist Party, it tried to force the British government to make peace with Hitler even after the Second World War had begun.

Today the weapons those Labour MPs didn’t want to send to Ukraine, for fear of upsetting Putin, are being used to defend Kyiv. So it’s time for activists on the left — whose critique of Nato’s aggressive past is understandable, and whose pacifism is laudable — to listen to those who got it right. Nato is the only thing stopping Russia doing to us what it’s doing to Ukraine. The men and women working in the bowels of the Royal Navy’s submarines under the Arctic are all that stops Putin imposing his rules, his dictatorship, his “legitimate security concerns” on us through nuclear ultimatums.

But Nato needs to be reformed. All remnants of the philosophy “out of area or out of business” — the idea that it must engage in operations beyond its members borders or be obsolete, which transformed the alliance into a hubristic chaos engine in Afghanistan and Libya — need to be discarded. Its “strategic concept” — the document set to be agreed by member governments at the Madrid summit in June — probably needs to be started again from scratch. Whatever the mixture of forces required to deter Putin across land, sea, air, space and cyberspace, we know they’ll have to be bigger, and we’ll need to spend more on them.

The future of Nato, however, is a debate that the left is barely engaged in. That’s the price we’ve paid for gestural “anti-Nato” politics. When the left’s not interested in the real problems that confront defence planners — of technology, industrial strategy, social legitimacy, legality and soldiers’ wellbeing — we end up leaving it all to the right, to the securocrats and former generals.

There is not a single left-wing think tank in Britain with a serious defence specialism. The “defence fringe” at Labour conference has, for years, been a musty backwater. As for the young, vibrant left gathered around events such as The World Transformed, it has shown no interest in defence policy.

The reasons for this lie in a form of doublethink. Activists can imagine themselves running the Department of Health or the Treasury under a Labour government, and have detailed ideas for what they might do there. They cannot imagine themselves running MI5, the British army or taking crunch decisions about an SAS operation. Many have become social-democratic bodies with Leninist souls, denouncing police spending cuts on the doorstep while advocating police abolition on Twitter.

Yet the bones of a distinct left defence policy are clear, once you accept that Labour’s commitment to Nato and deterrence are unshakeable, as well as its commitment to multilateral nuclear disarmament — even in this time of tension. We’re going to need a bigger army and a bigger reserve. That means the social character of the British army will have to change, just as it did in 1940, to look more like the real Britain and less like a white, public school fantasy Britain.

We’re going to have to fight Putin’s hybrid warfare tactics from within British society. That means the Labour and trade union movement becoming active participants in the fight against disinformation, ostracising those who collaborate with outlets such as RT and Sputnik, or who pose for snapshots with Putin’s Donbas militias.

We’re going to need a much bigger defence sector, and revived primary industries such as steelmaking. That, in turn, will kill off the Tory demand for neo-austerity. To do all this, and meet the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, will mean dramatically more spending and a bigger, more directive state.

And we’re going to have to do this with our European allies, whose combined capabilities in defence, cyber and counter-hybrid warfare will be invaluable. That means re-engaging with the EU — economically, politically and culturally. It means taking seriously the EU’s project of strategic autonomy, which will gain massive momentum with the conversion of the German Social Democrats to rearmament.

The left can make its mark on all these new realities, but only if we leave behind gestural anti-Nato politics and doublethink about the state. Keir Starmer wants to “boot out” MPs who back Putin’s geopolitical demands. I would rather persuade them and, more importantly, persuade an entire generation that’s let itself be mesmerised by pro-Putin and pro-Xi geopolitical theories. That’s what Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan achieved in the 1930s, turning a generation of left-wing pacifists into active anti-fascists. The threat to expel John McDonnell over his attendance at a Stop the War rally is ludicrous — we need time to convince some very badly misled people they were wrong.

The clock is ticking. Anybody in the Labour Party who wakes up angrier at Starmer than they are at Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov and Alexander Lukashenko needs to think hard about whether social-democratic politics is really for them.

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