Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Keir Starmer’s new shadow cabinet was designed to give credence to the word repeated ad infinitum in his campaign: unity. The removal of a handful of Corbyn loyalists, the rehabilitation of Ed Miliband and the appointment of various rivals into positions of power was intended as a firm break with the factionalism of Labour’s past. Of all of these appointments, the promotion of Lisa Nandy to shadow Foreign Secretary will prove the most politically canny. It’s based on the implicit acknowledgement that whilst Lisa Nandy couldn’t win a majority of the membership, the Labour party needs Nandyism. Specifically, it needs a Nandyite foreign policy.
December’s disastrous result for Labour has been put down to many things. Brexit has been the preferred explanation of Corbynites: what else could explain the radically different results in 2017 and 2019? The PLP- or what is left of it- have pointed to the unprecedented unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn (in the minus 40s as late as November 2019) (1); anti-semitism also undoubtedly played its part. All these explanations have a grain of truth in them, but Labour should heed Starmer’s call to ‘look to the future’ and realistically evaluate which of them it now has the power to change.
Jeremy Corbyn’s fall was a bitter disappointment for the ranks of devotees that he inspired. But if Labour takes any lesson from December, it should be more self aware of just how culturally, geographically and economically insular that group is from most of the country. We’ve all heard the stereotype: young, middle-class, university educated, urban dwelling and hyper ‘woke’. The ‘Corbynista’ may be a stereotype, but stereotypes don’t come out of thin air. Labour needs these voters as much as it needs the shattered remnants of the ‘Red Wall’; what could bind these disparate fragments together is a platform built on economic radicalism. With the global disruption caused by COVID-19, there has never been a more important time to press this message home. But something has to give- and it should be foreign policy.
Corbyn was given unfair treatment by the press: of course he was. Any Labour leader will face an uneven playing field in this sense. But it was on questions of patriotism and internationalism that Jeremy Corbyn left himself most exposed to attacks from the right-leaning tabloid media. The intersection of this problem with Brexit was what proved fatal to the Corbyn project. There is a reason why tabloid newspapers sell: there is some calculation behind their headlines. Having committed much of his decades-long political career to campaigning for various liberation movements around the world, and arguing for dialogue with terrorist groups, his foreign policy stance was easy to reduce to an unthinking anti-Westernism. Far too easy in fact- the writings of his chief of staff Seumas Milne (the Winchester College Maoist) weren’t helpful in this regard either. Nandy’s criticisms of Corbyn’s reaction to the Salisbury poisoning were a welcome antidote to this morally vacuous and electorally hopeless kind of politics.(2) She seems to have realised that the left needs patriotism to win. The stereotypical Corbynista might think that nations are imperialistic, patriarchal constructs; but they are thankfully no longer calling the shots. And as engaging as that assertion might be in an academic context, it has about as much appeal as rotting fish in a political context.