For the second time in 12 months, the UK’s main opposition party, Labour has been in a leadership contest that has ripped the tenuous alliance between moderate social democrats and self identifying socialists apart. Because of Labour’s increasingly left wing membership overwhelmingly in favour of the incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn, the challenger, Owen Smith has positioned his policy platform to be as radical as Corbyn’s, instead of critiquing his ideology, Smith has focused on chastising Corbyn’s leadership style and oratory ability. The main exception to this is foreign policy where the candidates’ stances illustrate the gulf between the Labour party members (who elect the leader) and the wider general public.
Whoever the winner of this contest is would be the favourite to become the next Prime Minister after Theresa May, so its important to analyse both these candidates foreign policy. It may give us an idea of the future direction of the United Kingdom on a geopolitical level, but more immediately interpret who’s foreign policy will have the most impact.
The most pressing issue facing Britain at this moment is the future relationship with the European Union. Corbyn’s position during the referendum campaign was astonishingly uninspired in both its tone and volume, failing miserably to construct an enthusiastic message on the EU and broadcast it to the media. Amazingly on June 24th Corbyn called for the immediate start for an EU exit process, leading some to criticise he had never actually changed his views from his ‘old-school’ socialism, vehemently opposed to the common market in the 1970s. Smith on the other hand has called for the Labour party to frustrate Brexit as much as humanly possible, going beyond what even some zealous Labour MPs have openly expressed for fear of defying the ‘will of the people’.
You might imagine then the young and urban, educated voters so passionate about the EU who now make up the bulk of Corbyn’s support within the Labour party would find Smith’s stance appealing. However one of the paradoxes of this leadership campaign is this particular demographic’s forgiveness of Corbyn’s lacklustre performance, instead choosing to ignore his failings and blame his ineffectual message on the ‘mainstream media’ failing to give him air time. Smith’s foreign policy stance seemingly most antithetical to the contemporary British public, surprisingly falls on deaf ears within the radical Labour membership.
Beyond Brexit there are numerous other issues, Corbyn and Smith clash on. On the continuation of Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Smith has said he is in favour, as part of a wider multilateralist strategy for disarmament. Corbyn on the other hand has always been a staunch advocate of unilateral disarmament and it’s a policy that resonates with the Labour membership. Smith has the more conventional stance on Trident that would more likely put him in greater favour with the British public in a general election. However, because of the radical membership it is likely Smith’s ‘warmongering’ stance on nuclear arms will lose him the Labour leadership and therefore the ability to put his empirically more electable policies in to practice. Corbyn’s radical stance conversely, will propel him towards victory within the Labour party, ensuring his fringe views get a national voice, but all historical precedent suggests a voice is all that will manifest from his election.
Perhaps Corbyn’s stance on NATO and Russian aggression is the most theoretically credible foreign policy stance he has, suggesting that NATO has in recent years expanded eastwards too aggressively and has been counter productive and exacerbated long-term historical Russian anxieties of Western encirclement. A policy of rapprochement, may if given a chance begin to halt recent Russian expansionism and alleviate fears of a new Cold War. However, in a recent hustings Corbyn hinted he would not guarantee the UK would respect its Article 5 treaty obligations. Owen Smith rightly lambasted Corbyn for this view expressed (and would rightly be perceived by the British public) with great naïvety. Nevertheless, Corbyn’s exclamations here, will be received by the membership as steadfast determination against ‘establishment-warmongers’ and not with the careful and rigorous examination it deserves. Once again leaving Smith’s more conventional stance in utter irrelevance.
The last big issue on which Corbyn and Smith can be compared is the Syrian conflict where both voted against airstrikes. Smith in recent times has suggested, possibly to try and appeal the left-wing ‘selectorate’ of Labour members, that ISIS could be negotiated with. This backfired and was picked up by Corbyn and supporters, suggesting they were ill considered and proof Smith will say anything to get elected. Corbyn wants a policy built around peace and human rights, but unlike the general public his supporters seem to have no care that he has appeared on Press TV and Russia Today in order to get his message of non-violence and human rights across, showing that Corbyn is far from the morally pure, humanist ideologue his supporters think he is.
The Labour leadership campaign is debilitated by an incongruity. Smith’s policy platform is on the whole considerably more sensible and measured than Corbyn’s, with statistical evidence showing it would be more appealing the British public in a general election scenario by not drifting considerably from conventional narrative. However, this will do Smith no favours. Corbyn’s longtime stubbornness and ‘consistency’ on foreign policy has convinced the Labour party membership he is a principled and morally pure man with a radical enough vision to counter the establishment they believe Smith represents. Corbyn’s policies essentially guarantee him the Labour leadership, however it is incredibly unlikely the British public will endorse them anywhere near as enthusiastically.