Transitioning from Protest Vote to World Leader: Corbyn and the United States

Now, more than ever, the Labour Party must offer a credible, realistic means of dealing with our transatlantic ally.

Tony Blair’s image as a public figure is inextricably linked to Iraq. Depictions of him in cartoons as submissive to George W Bush mark the popular view of his premiership. Many will be familiar with the image of Blair holding the tail of a charging bulldog with the face of the US President above the caption ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. This cartoon, and the broader disappointment that it represented, gives some explanation for the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. On Iraq, Corbyn is the polar opposite and an active antagonist of Blair. Heading the Stop the War Coalition until his election in 2015, Labour’s current leader was one of those who publicly condemned Blair in February 2003. As well as explaining the ongoing bitterness between the two men, Blair and Corbyn’s differences on Iraq and the foreign policy of the United States is significant for the upcoming election.

While the former Prime Minister’s willingness, perhaps eagerness, to follow the US President served to diminish public faith in his honesty, Corbyn now faces a very different problem. As the Labour leader seeks to rebuild his credibility as a potential Prime Minister, rather than simply a voice of protest, he must establish himself as capable of global leadership. Now that the Labour Party appears to have accepted the need for some form of Brexit, its ability to articulate a cogent, sensible way of dealing with Donald Trump is more important than ever. The relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, whether economic or political, will be a central asset to both our dealings with the European Union and the broader strength of the British economy. This does not mean blindly following the United States. Corbyn, must, however, set out his vision for the relationship between the two countries. If he fails in this regard, the Labour party will be increasingly vulnerable to Theresa May’s claim of the mantle of ‘strong and stable leadership’. This is particularly important given May’s visit to Washington in late January which, though bringing muted protest at the time, ultimately served to bolster her status as a ‘safe pair of hands’.

Not only does Corbyn’s approach pose problems for his relationship with the United States, the political landscape of the United States has also undoubtedly shifted since Blair’s time. The rather gormless, predictable figure of Bush has now been replaced by a brash, vitriolic showman. Corbyn, and other British public figures, have been right to condemn Trump’s rhetoric about ethnic minorities and women. He was also right to criticise May’s willingness to invite the President for a state visit only weeks into his presidency. All of these interventions, however, were primarily responsive and negative. Corbyn needs to strike a balance between defending democratic and inclusive values and offering a measured, flexible approach to the ‘special’ relationship. While Blair damaged the party by adopting a policy perceived as too submissive, Corbyn risks doing so by blanket criticism. This was epitomised in April when the Labour leader, in direct contradiction of Tom Watson and other Labour MPs, condemned Trump’s bombing of a Syrian airfield in retaliation for Chemical weapons attacks on civilians. The Labour leader’s futile call for major international negotiations showed little appreciation for the US President’s demeanour or temperament.

In the run up to the 2017 election, there appears to be little danger of Jeremy Corbyn imitating Tony Blair’s interventionist, supportive relationship with the United States. This does not mean that there are not lessons to learn from Blair’s premiership. Corbyn currently risks alienating voters by presenting a policy on the United States which consists only of protest. Now, more than ever, the Labour Party must offer a credible, realistic means of dealing with our transatlantic ally.

Tom Daniels is a Young Fabians member

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