By Mark Buckley
The truism that elections are won and lost on directly economic questions is powerful because it is almost true. This argument is currently being used against Jeremy Corbyn and his clearly internationalist politics by newspapers such as The Guardian – who indicate they are willing to support some of his economic policies if he will abandon support for the Palestinians and opposition to aggressive foreign policies by the US. But this situation shows the the ‘truism’ is one-sided and therefore false.
It is important that socialists and the wider movement of Corbyn supporters understand the importance of internationalist politics and are able to defend and promote them. This is in the interests of electing Corbyn as Prime Minister and supporting him in office as well as all those struggling for peace and justice internationally.
The reason why the truism about economic policy is normally correct is because in a country like Britain the divide between the major political parties is usually a very narrow one. Voters are generally asked to choose at the margin, on policies aimed at offering small benefits to one section of the population or another. That is not the case currently.
The Tories are going to continue austerity (whatever the ‘liberal’ press may say) and the only big giveaways in the pipeline will be tax cuts for big business. By contrast, Labour under Corbyn will end austerity and begin to reverse it. For Britain, the gulf in economic policy is extraordinarily wide.
The government therefore has to appeal to voters on something other than economic policy. It should be by now clear what that appeal is. Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of close association with Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA, as well as being an apologist for Putin. He has been accused by ‘serious’ newspapers of being a Czech spy. A number of serving and former spies have questioned his fitness to be Prime Minister. Essentially, this is a delegitimisation campaign which claims that Corbyn is a security risk, who will not keep people safe. The aim is to try to convince the electorate that something other than the economy is the most important issue facing them.
The issue of people’s safety, terrorism and war, are chosen because they are even more vital questions for the population and for voters even than the most acute economic questions. The fall or rise in pay is relatively insignificant if people believe they or their loved ones are in potentially mortal danger. If Jeremy Corbyn did really threaten people’s safety then that would be even more important to them than the economy. This is the mood the Tories hope to create around Corbyn. The aim is to get Labour to accept the framework that its policies do in fact endanger people either directly or indirectly and that it must therefore ‘apologise’ for this. Once this framework is created by ‘apologies’ then of course the Tory media will relentlessly ram home this false framework.
Targeting real or imaginary foreign enemies for purely political advantage is an age-old trick. If anyone doubts its effectiveness, they need look no further than recent history, including Britain’s. The Thatcher government was deeply unpopular and facing potential loss of office during its first term. The ‘Falklands War’ proved to be a decisive turning point in her popularity, which she followed up by a ruthless attack on the ‘enemy within’, the Scargill leadership of the NUM.
More recently, during the 2017 general election campaign the Tories attempted to use the series of horrific terrorist attacks for political advantage. They claimed that Corbyn’s long-standing and principled support for peace in the Middle East and in Ireland was evidence for his ‘support for terrorism’.
But unlike any other previous Labour leadership, Corbyn and his advisers decided to fight the Tories head on on their chosen ground after the Manchester and other terrorist attacks. They rejected Tory claims and argued correctly that a key factor fuelling terrorism was Britain’s continuous support for US military campaigns in the Middle East, and the enormous anger that provokes in the region and beyond. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on this was one of the decisive turning points of the last election campaign. This argument was successful both because it was true and is aligned with the majority view of the population, which is sick of Middle East wars – first because of the slaughter they create there and even more directly because of the dangers they have created in Britain and therefore for them.
The difference in practical effect between approaches can be shown by the contrast between Jeremy Corbyn’s forthright and accurate speech following the Manchester terrorist attack, which sustained Labour’s support and maintained the correct terms of debate in the election, and the negative effect on Labour’s support of its ‘apologies’ for Corbyn’s non-existent antisemitism in his support for the Palestinians during the summer.
There is an alternative approach to Corbyn’s, which has a long and inglorious history in the British labour movement. This is to ‘stick to bread and butter issues’ of pay, housing, the NHS and so on and leave the Tories to set the agenda on international policy.
These bread and butter issues are entirely vital, it is completely impossible to build popular support without serious policies to address them. But, in Lenin’s famous dictum, ‘politics comes before economics, that’s the ABC of Marxism’. Matters of life and death, war and peace, terrorism and security will trump economic issues.
Any party which lets its opponents dictate policies, and in particular to set the terms of debate in these questions will lose. Corbyn has refused to do that. Instead Corbyn’s support for peace, dialogue and international co-operation would make an important contribution to saving lives, making the British people safer and building a more peaceful world. It is decisive to the whole Corbyn project that his supporters understand and promote his internationalist politics, to support him into office and sustain him there.