Opening Labour for a new cold war

HMS Queen Elizabeth

By Steve Bell

The new pamphlet Open Labour & A Progressive Foreign Policy for New Times represents the first salvo from Labour’s new cold warriors. Despite presenting itself as a radical departure, it is a continuation of the Tory “Global Britain” project.

Thus, in the Open Labour (OL) pamphlet we read: “Ultimately, under any leadership right or left, the US remains the indispensable partner in any wider attempt to reconstruct the rule-based international system and counteract the expansion and influence of Chinese authoritarianism, Russian aggression and jihadist terrorism, among other issues” (p15). Compare this to the Tory government’s authoritative “Global Britain” documents of Spring 2018: “Our alliance with the United States remains our top priority and cornerstone of what we wish to achieve”(1) and “The UK stands together with the United States in facing a resurgent Russia, and new forces of threat across the world, as well as the implications of an increasingly assertive China.”(2) Spot the difference? Me neither.

The pamphlet proposes a return to traditional bipartisan policies, hoping for a morsel of progress from the incoming Biden presidency. Such a small ambition is a sorry end for what was to have been “…a real transformation in approach”, according to Alex Sobel MP and Professor Mary Kaldor’s introduction. But the authors, Paul Thompson and Frederick Harry Pitts share so much of the Washington/Whitehall consensus that it is not surprising.

Burying Corbynism and Reviving Interventionism

Wanting to bury Corbyn’s anti-imperialist internationalism, they choose to characterise Corbynism as having a binary ‘two-campism’ of “the West against the Rest”. This is, like much else in the pamphlet, a distortion. Corbyn’s approach, in common with leftists around the world, is to address the essential multi-polarity of this century. US imperialism has begun a long-term decline, where its economic power no longer orders the world market, and its awesome military power is frequently ineffective. Between 2008 and 2018, the US economy had an average growth rate of a mere 1.5%. The World Bank estimates (October outlook) that China will be responsible for 60% of the world’s growth in the next two years, compared to the US’s 3%.

Alongside this, there has been the growth of the BRICS economies, the increasing weight of the EU in comparison to the US, and the continuing struggle of the developing nations for independence and prosperity. In these circumstances, to prioritise the revival of the US’s hegemonic role is to look to the past, not the future.

The Stop the War Coalition (STW) is singled out for sharing the alleged ‘two-campism’. We plead guilty to refusing to revive empires that are dead (Britain) or declining (US). We also broadly utilise the idea of the multi-polar world. But we reject the accusation that we have a “complete lack of interest in any conflict not directly attributable to ‘the West’” and “an inability to see any other actor other than the US and its allies having motives or powers”. Our interests are wide-ranging, and our assessments of state actions are tempered with realism.

Perhaps the authors do not understand that the campaign focuses on the government whose actions are funded by the taxes we pay? So, we plead guilty that our priority is to stop the British government from invading, occupying and destroying poorer countries. As this is a national addiction of British governments, which the authors wish to feed, it becomes obvious why they are hostile to STW.

Lest there be any doubt, they write: “In this period of renewal, Labour must look beyond the intellectual hegemony until recently wielded by Corbynism to find resources for a left foreign policy based on underpinning values of solidarity and safeguarding even where this may sometimes require a challenge to the sovereignty of individual states” (p15). Yes, this is a return to “liberal interventionism” in the party.

In practice there is no difference between “liberal” and “conservative” interventionism. Nineteen years of war have been inflicted against the people of Afghanistan with no obvious difference in method between the different governments inflicting the suffering. The same can be equally said of the experience of Iraq since 2003, Syria since 2011, Libya since 2011, Yemen since 2015. These displays of “solidarity and safeguarding” have resulted in millions, of needlessly lost lives and trillions of dollars of destroyed and wasted resources.

The Libya Intervention

These catastrophic failures of British foreign policy are, in the authors perspective, not worth examining, Syria is the sole exception to this, and will shortly be examined. The reference to Libya is in the introduction and reads: “The Libyan intervention was the last large scale liberal humanitarian intervention. Initially it stopped Gaddafi from killing his citizens with heavy weapons but it empowered the militias on the ground and left us with the long term problem of rival warlords carving up the country”.

Several eyesores here, those “militias” are the ones we trained, armed, and imported. This “long term problem” is not really for “us” – the Libyan people have a problem with their living standards having been halved, their infrastructure destroyed, numerous deaths and mutilating injuries. But the rest of “us” are just looking at the tragedy from the outside.

Libya never had its’ Chilcot Inquiry. The nearest thing was the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Committee report (3). This Committee had a Tory majority and Chair. There we read: “Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.” (4).

And, quite crushingly for defenders of the intervention, “We have seen no evidence that the UK Government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya. It may be that the UK Government was unable to analyse the nature of the rebellion in Libya due to incomplete intelligence and insufficient institutional insight and that it was caught up in events as they developed. It could not verify the actual threats posed by the Gaddafi regime; it selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric at face value; and it failed to identify the militant Islamist extremist element in the rebellion. UK strategy was founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence” (5).

The Yemen Intervention

The pamphlet’s reference to Yemen is just as misleading as the Libyan reference. On page 8, we read: “Whilst there has quite correctly been widespread condemnation of the character of the Saudi intervention to restore the Yemeni government and its role in the humanitarian crisis engulfing the country, for instance, less left-wing ire has been reserved for Iran’s role in the 2015 coup and subsequent destabilisation via its Houthi proxies. In such situations the left should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but instead maintains a solipsistic preoccupation with the often-imaginary omnipresence of the extended West the world over”.

This humanitarian crisis has been characterised by the UN, for three years now, as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The Saudi war and the siege of the country, by land, sea and air has been directly responsible for this catastrophe. But it has not been “imaginary omnipresence” that has sustained the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) invasion and occupation for nearly six years. It has been members of British armed forces, and British Aerospace personnel in the Saudi command centre in Riyadh.

It has been British, US and French corporations selling planes, vehicles and munitions in exchange for vast war-profits from Yemen’s misery. It has been British armed forces training the Saudi/UAE army, naval and air force personnel. It has been the British government refusing an international investigation into Saudi war crimes, despite the Ministry of Defence logging 500 potential war crimes by the Saudi air force. We have recently learnt from Declassified UK that there are 15 British bases inside Saudi Arabia. Further we learnt from The Independent in late November that British troops were deployed inside Saudi Arabia from February 2020, without Parliament or the public being informed. But let’s talk about “imaginary” things.

As for “chewing gum”, well at least learn how to remove the wrapper. The “Houthis” are correctly titled Ansar Allah. The seizure of Sana’a by Ansar Allah occurred in 2014, not 2015. This followed the exhaustion of Ex-President Hadi’s mandate in 2014, when he had failed to establish a new constitution, an inclusive national dialogue or an inclusive government, i.e., the terms of his mandate. Since that time, this discredited politician has failed to secure a popular base large enough to allow him, and his ministers, to live inside the country. They are “guests” in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Meanwhile, Ansar Allah has established effective governance over around 70% of the population. They also have the advantage of being Yemeni, so like their opponents in Al-Islah and the Southern Transitional Council, they have a part to play in a Yemeni led peace process for the future of the country. And lest we forget, the Saudi/UAE coalition members are currently engaged in regular bouts of armed actions and governorate coups against each other.

Iran’s presence, imaginary or otherwise, is hard to demonstrate. Ansar Allah won the support of both popular militias, and a substantial part of the formerly unified national army – so even the US state department does not suggest an actual armed Iranian presence of any substance. Before the war erupted in 2015, the largest arms bazaar in the Middle East was to be found in Saada province, the area where Ansar Allah emerged from. Unlike the Saudi/UAE forces, Ansar Allah is subjected to an arms embargo. Most informed observers confirm that the relations between the Iranian regime and Ansar Allah had been not very consequential but have, not surprisingly, warmed with the prolongation of the war’s impasse.

STW supports a political process in Yemen which obviously requires the lifting of the siege, and the withdrawal of foreign forces. The British government should withdraw British forces and end arm sales. Not one of these proposals make the pages of the OL pamphlet.

The Syria Intervention

Syria is the country mentioned more than any. This is because our authors believe there should have been much more intervention by the US and Britain. However, they choose to overlook the extensive covert operation undertaken by the US and Britain, in partnership with a range of allies. These included assisting in the training camps for the armed opposition, located in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; intelligence and logistical support to the armed opposition; deploying special forces inside Syria; air raids (including with embedded RAF personnel in US planes); targeted assassinations (including via RAF drones); disruption of attempts to establish a political process, etc. This was before the open, later, engagement, when Trump was able to boast how the US now had Syria’s oil. The result of the covert action was an armed opposition wherein the forces of Al Qaeda, ISIS and Al Nusrah were dominant and absorbed much of the US/UK trained forces.

Overlooking the actual intervention, the OL pamphlet gets wistful: “In the past five years, some Labour MPs have openly regretted toeing Ed Miliband’s three-line whip and defeating the Cameron government’s plans for limited strikes against Assad’s air force and chemical weapon facilities in 2013 – a defeat that forced President Obama to rethink his own plans for action” (p4). Ah, what might have been! If the strikes were to be effective they would not have been “limited”. The Syrian regime was battling for its life why would it be deterred by a token display of force? If the escalation had reached a point of removing the regime’s foundation, there was only one force capable of replacing it. Damascus would probably have then fallen to some alliance of Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Nusrah and aligned forces. Too incredible? Remember that just months later in 2014, ISIS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

But Thompson and Pitts are not correct when they write: “The Stop-the-War worldview cannot accommodate situations where Western inaction, rather than Western intervention, has played a decisive role in unfolding violence. When the STWC discusses the Syrian conflict, it is almost wholly silent about the role of Russia or Iran, and even the Assad regime itself.” (p4)

On the first sentence, there was no “inaction”, as explained above, the US and Britain trained, organised and armed sections of the armed opposition. And on the second sentence, the campaign’s position can be found on its website in statements from the time, which condemn the bombings from all parties and opposes all foreign intervention. Clearly, our authors research on STWC was less than superficial.

New Targets for a New Cold War

The case for reviving interventionism, liberal or otherwise, can only be sustained by ignoring the impact of actual interventions. Having done exactly that, Thompson and Pitts have made clear from references peppered throughout, who exactly is worthy of some ‘special’ attention. These include Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Turkey and China. There is no suggestion of a multipolar approach. Nor should we doubt the sharpness of their policy. Referring to Russia, China, Iran and Turkey, we are told: “The absence of clearly defined boundaries between state and corporate power make the predatory behaviours of these authoritarian regimes potentially dangerous in different ways”(p8).

If we are menaced by predatory, authoritarian regimes then Boris Johnson’s decision to add a further £24.1 billion to the military, over a four-year period, makes sense. But perhaps this happy coincidence is more obviously explained by our authors’ enthusiasm for the new cold war being pursued by both US and British governments.

That is most certainly the case for we later read: “After Trump’s abdication of US leadership over the liberal global order, Biden has proposed to wield renewed American hegemony in support of the forces of democracy against insurgent authoritarianism”(p13). This is obviously exciting for our authors, but they have concerns: “It may be that Biden adopts a similarly disinterested orientation towards the Middle East, with European partners like Emmanuel Macron acting as an occasional moral and ethical conscience guiding American power to intervene in the still fractious combination of jihadist terror, regime violence and proxy war specific to the region” (p14). The last French President to act as the US’s “ethical conscience” was Nicolas Sarkozy, over Libya. That disaster was examined earlier.

By the by, our authors are very keen on Macron. On page 14, they compare “Erdogan’s bellicose Islamism and Macron’s muscular secularism”. Promoting systematic Islamophobia into French society is not the greatest advert for secularism, although it does also represent physical force against France’s Muslim community. The OL pamphlet wants us to admire a politician who is going to make taking photos of the police a criminal action.


In this limited space, it is not possible to examine all the issues raised by the pamphlet. But it is evident that there is little that is either radical or innovative here. The starting point is a rather listless reassertion of US hegemony, Britain’s subordinate role to that and the need to increase the conflict with Russia, China and developing nations.

A better starting point for the authors would be to revisit the first authoritative assessment of our “defence” after the ending of the first Cold War. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review, commissioned by the Labour Government stated: “…there is today no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Nor do we foresee the re-emergence of such a threat”(6). That is an assessment which remains correct. If our authors disagree, they should explain how their favourite targets are actively planning military action against Britain. Failing that, they should start addressing the real dangers our nation faces. The enemy is already here, promoting austerity, poverty, job insecurity, homelessness, racism, exploitation and future wars against developing countries.

The best part of the pamphlet is the picture of Nelson Mandela at the 2000 Labour Conference. He gave a thoughtful and generous address to the assembled members. It was not easily forgotten. But other features of Mandela have been forgotten, and for Open Labour, here are some of them. The first country that President Mandela visited was Cuba, in recognition of the young Cubans who gave their lives fighting apartheid. Mandela said, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. On his visit to China in 1992, he said “I want to express my gratitude to the Chinese people because since the founding of China in 1949, you’ve always been fighting against oppression, colonialism and apartheid with us”. At his funeral in 2013, Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, was asked to join the guard of honour, in recognition of the outstanding contribution Irish republicans made to the struggle against apartheid. Truly, Mandela understood the multi-polar world. Open Labour should try to.


  1. Point 11, “The government’s vision of Global Britain …etc” FCO March 2018.
  2. Point 20, ibid.
  3. “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s foreign policy options” HoC, 6th September 2016.
  4. Point 32, ibid.
  5. Point 38, ibid.
  6. “The Strategic Defence Review”, House of Commons, 3rd September 1988.

This article was orginally published by the Stop The War Coalition.