Labour needs to decide if Corbyn’s foreign policy decisions are a distraction or an asset

Team Corbyn can’t work out if their leader’s foreign policy is a distraction or a badge of honour.

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When you talk to members of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle about foreign policy, you get two reactions. Some roll their eyes, tut or sigh. You hear words to the effect of: “We have a great domestic agenda, why on earth are we involved in a row about a wreath? Just concede and move on.”

But from other key members of the set-up, you get a different reaction. Yes, of course, they’ll say, elections are won and lost on domestic not foreign policy, but “look, there’s an important issue here about how a radical government behaves in these conflicts”.

Corbyn himself is firmly in the second camp, but many of those he most trusts and respects are in the first. That’s part of why Labour’s responses (both through official channels and the informal network of sympathetic commentators) whenever some event or association from the Labour leader’s past is dredged up are so incoherent.

The party has a clear choice: either disavow Corbyn’s past associations and foreign policy choices, or make an explicit argument. But instead it tries to do a bit of both: shutting the story down as quickly as possible while also trying to prosecute the argument that actually, there is an important principle to be defended. As a result, the story runs on, Corbyn looks shifty, but its policy worldview isn’t advanced or advocated for in any meaningful way.

The Labour leadership has an advantage, in that there is more chance of Corbyn winning the London Marathon than there is of him disavowing his past foreign policy choices, so the decision ought to make itself: they can’t “concede and move on”, so their only sustainable and viable course of action is to argue without caveat or evasion for those choices.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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