Ian Sinclair agrees with Jeremy Corbyn, but most people in this country don’t (yet)on 15 October 2015
By James Strong
Regular OpenDemocracy contributor Ian Sinclair has written an interesting and very detailed critique of my earlier post on Jeremy Corbyn’s defence policy views. I hope I’m not going too far by suggesting he writes from an essentially pro-Corbyn perspective. His piece is worth a read. He makes a number of good points, and it’s an interesting counterweight to my more sceptical stance. That said, I think his argument contains a number of weaknesses worth addressing.
Conflation, contradiction and optimism
To begin with, I think Sinclair conflates the three distinct questions of whether Corbyn’s views are a) right, b) representative and c) likely to shift the mainstream towards his position. Instinctively he wants to contest my claim that Corbyn’s views are not representative because he personally thinks they are both right and likely to prove influential. That’s a perfectly reasonable instinct. But the arguments are not the same, are conflating them raises difficulties.
For example, Sinclair opens by arguing that “Corbyn’s views on foreign policy issues are representative of the electorate as a whole” (emphasis added). I don’t think he shows this, for reasons I set out below. I’m also not sure why he’s bothering to argue it. I thought the whole point of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for Labour Party leader was that he is not mainstream. I actually think Sinclair thinks that too. Later in the piece he suggests that “Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, if he is given a fair hearing, should significantly widen the debate on foreign policy, bringing long excluded voices, arguments and facts into the public debate”. That’s more like it. It contradicts the earlier point. Corbyn can’t simultaneously represent the mainstream and the marginalised. But I think Sinclair is on much firmer ground when they argue that Corbyn’s ideas, however non-mainstream they may be, are still correct and likely to win people over in time.
I’m not convinced it’ll happen. That’s partly because I think he’s wrong, though I don’t want to belabour the point. I also think it’s because he’s isn’t a great communicator, because he isn’t terribly interested in doing what needs to be done to get his message across and because of the size of the task he faces. I think he needs to stop whinging about hostile media coverage and try to woo journalists’ support, one of Blair’s great insights subsequently thrown out with the bath-water of Iraq. I think he needs to address the fact that just 20% of voters trust him to make the right decisions on defence, while 54% do not trust him. That’s a huge gap to close. It can’t just be that they don’t know him. He’s been in parliament for 32 years. I think he needs to decide whether he can reconcile his well-meant commitment to internal party democracy with the need to tell voters what Labour stands for. Witness how far his shadow cabinet is divided and his MPs are fighting each other over bombing ISIS in Syria. David Cameron is delaying a vote on the issue because it isn’t clear which way Labour will go.
Specific points of deviation
I don’t think Sinclair successfully challenges my fundamental proposition, that Corbyn’s defence policy views lie outside the mainstream. He does not address the fact that the public supports Britain remaining in NATO while Corbyn wants to pull out. He does not address the fact the public supports military action against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria while Corbyn rejects both. He does not address the fact that the public approved of David Cameron’s decision to kill two ISIS operatives in Syria suspected of plotting terrorist attacks in Britain while Corbyn condemned the move. On each of these major defence policy issues, Corbyn clearly holds non-mainstream views.
On military interventions, I think Sinclair misses my fundamental point by focusing narrowly on Afghanistan and Libya. My fundamental point is not that Corbyn sometimes opposes military action. It’s that he opposes military action under almost any circumstances, while the public is open-minded. It’s true the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to public scepticism about the utility of force as a foreign policy tool. But on balance most people are still willing to consider each individual proposal on its merits. Corbyn is not. If his complete opposition to military action was the mainstream view, the public would not support intervention against ISIS. It unequivocally does.
Corbyn was (and still is) on the right side of the debate over military action against the Assad regime. But, as Sinclair admits, he opposed the war in Afghanistan at a time when the majority of the country supported it. He was amongst just 2% of MPs who voted against no-fly zones in Libya. As that tiny figure suggests, neither was a mainstream stance at the time. Though the public eventually concluded Afghanistan was a waste of British lives, they were willing to give force a chance. Corbyn wasn’t. He opposed the invasion from the start, not because of the likely cost to British forces, but because of what it meant for Afghans. Though the public grew progressively more sceptical about the intervention in Libya, parliament voted to uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Corbyn opposed it because he thought it was hypocritical given the West’s support for Saudi Arabia, Israel and (before 2011) Gaddafi himself. That’s not a completely unreasonable argument, but nor was it the mainstream opposition view, which had more to do with the general scepticism about military action Sinclair pointed out. And again, none of this speaks to the real point. The real point is that Corbyn is always anti-military while the public is not.
On Trident, Sinclair rejects my suggestion that Britain favours renewing Trident while Corbyn does not. He produces two pieces of evidence to support this contention. The first is a statement from the polling expert John Curtice that “the majority of polls suggest that there is a smallish plurality opposed to the renewal of Trident”. The second is a 2013 study by Nick Ritchie that concluded essentially the same. Sinclair misrepresents both. Curtice referred specifically to Scotland, acknowledging support for Trident in the UK as a whole. That undermines my subsidiary suggestion, that Scotland supports Trident, it’s true. But it supports my primary point. Ritchie, meanwhile, notes plurality opposition to renewing Trident in polls between 2005 and 2013. But he goes on to conclude that “the electorate is broadly in favour of keeping nuclear weapons in some form”. He suggests the discrepancy results from the perceived cost of a full-scale renewal, and that there is at least a debate to be had. Sinclair criticises me for using just one poll where Ritchie uses twenty. But my poll is more recent. It post-dates Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, for example. I’ll add a second data point that reinforces Ritchie’s suggestion that the public is concerned about the cost, and my view that attitudes have hardened since 2013. A September 2014 poll found that just 32% of respondents favoured replacing Trident like-for-like, while 31% preferred a cheaper alternative and 24% wanted to disarm altogether. If no cheaper alternative was available, 52% said they would rather replace Trident than disarm. The international political situation has changed since 2013. So, I submit, has the public’s view. I accept that means it could change again. But the most recent data suggests the public is presently minded to support renewal.
Again, I think my original point stands. Corbyn does not currently represent the mainstream. He is conclusively anti-NATO, anti-military action and anti-nuclear. The public is pro-NATO, willing to consider military action under certain circumstances, and broadly pro-nuclear weapons while open to arguments about their necessity and cost. Corbyn might yet win arguments about each of these issues. But he hasn’t done it yet. And he has some distance to go.
The UN and international law
Sinclair points out that I don’t really deal with Corbyn’s vocal support for the UN and international law. That’s partly because I don’t think Corbyn actually cares about the UN and international law. I think he cares about opposing military action. Corbyn opposed the Gulf War in 1991, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the intervention in Libya in 2011 despite the fact all three had UN Security Council approval. It’s true the public prefers defence policies that comply with international law. But it does not necessarily share Corbyn’s interpretation of international law. For example, 66% of poll respondents supported Cameron’s use of a drone strike against ISIS figures in Syria, which Corbyn objected to on legal grounds.
International law is inherently contestable. Britain’s armed forces cannot act without a ruling from the Attorney-General that there is at least a ‘reasonable’ legal case for using force. Every time Britain uses force abroad, in other words, a group of experienced international lawyers have concluded there are good legal grounds for doing so. Corbyn always contests such judgements. The public doesn’t necessarily. It did over bombing Assad in 2013, but not over ISIS in 2014. Again, it’s not his stated support for international law that makes Corbyn non-mainstream. It’s his hardline anti-military action interpretation of international law. It’s reasonable enough. But it isn’t one most people in this country share.
The point of my original piece was to highlight areas of potential difficulty with Corbyn’s foreign and security policy stance, areas where I think he will struggle to represent the majority view. There are areas where he will find things more easy. Indeed, Sinclair has previously highlighted a number of policy issues where Corbyn’s instincts do in fact reflect the mainstream. I’ve mentioned bombing Assad already, and Sinclair makes the point that the public came to agree with Corbyn that Britain should pull out of Afghanistan. Most people agree with Corbyn that parliament should decide when Britain goes to war. I’ve written two articles about the subject, noting how what began as a demand by the self-described ‘awkward squad’ of left-wing Labour MPs (which included Corbyn) became first a mechanism for Tony Blair to placate Labour Party opposition to war in Iraq, then a tool for David Cameron to differentiate himself from Blair, and then finally a check on executive power. It has its downsides in terms of the efficiency of British foreign policy. But I nevertheless consider it the ‘awkward squad’s most considerable foreign policy success, and the one most likely to last.
Sinclair is on much firmer ground when he argues that Corbyn now enjoys a substantial platform from which to try to shift the mainstream of British public debate than he is when he tries to claim Corbyn is already mainstream. I have my doubts about Corbyn’s ability, and indeed his willingness, to make the transition from campaigning outsider to Prime Minister in waiting, and I think unless he makes that switch he’ll never win majority support for his views. But I could be wrong. And it’ll be interesting finding out.
Finally, it’s not on the website yet, but I’m actually speaking at an event at LSE on exactly this topic on the evening of 12 November. Save the date.
James Strong is Fellow in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations at the LSE. He tweets @dr_james_strong.
Image: The Weekly Bull CC BY-NC-ND