How to Lose an Election on Foreign Policy
Jeremy Corbyn’s blunders over Russian poisoning were critical to his polling collapse.
As the old adage goes, foreign policy doesn’t win you elections. But sometimes it can lose them. In the United Kingdom’s 2019 general election, which saw Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn thrashed by incumbent Boris Johnson, it may have been a key factor in Labour’s defeat.
A strong foreign-policy platform is unlikely to sway many undecided voters. But in response to a national emergency, as Britain saw with Russia’s attempted nerve agent assassination of Sergei Skripal, a weak response clearly turns the public against you.
The Skripal case, where agents of Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency were caught on camera in Salisbury, England, attempting to murder a Russian former double agent with nerve agents that left him and his daughter Yulia paralyzed and killed a bystander, seized headlines in Britain. But the response from the Labour leadership was to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the more damning claims published last week in excerpts of Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, written by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, is that Labour’s head of communications repeatedly attempted to steer Labour’s position away from holding the Russian government to account, including allegedly gutting a speech of “any statements levelling blame at Russia, support for Nato, or anything else that Corbyn might regard as unduly imperialist in its tone.”
It was a fatal decision for Corbyn. Despite some passionate yet misguided defenses of Corbyn’s skepticism, the evidence against Russia is overwhelming. So are the signs that the decision was a crippling one for an already shaky Corbyn.
According to YouGov polling at the time, while 53 percent of the British electorate thought then Prime Minister Theresa May handled the Salisbury poisonings well, only 18 percent of the population thought the same of Corbyn’s reaction. Up until that point in 2018, Labour had been enjoying relative popularity in the polls, with Labour polling as high as 43 percent, but following Salisbury, those numbers began to fall. While the Labour Party got a slight boost in the polling as May’s premiership ran into problems with Brexit, Corbyn’s own personal popularity ratings never recovered. As I explored in my podcast series Corbynism: The Post-Mortem, Corbyn’s Labour Party did not lose the 2019 general election because of the Salisbury poisonings alone—but they were a critical moment that embedded the image of Corbyn as weak and foolish.
This was driven almost entirely by Corbyn and his team, not by the Labour Party as a whole. Throughout the affair, Corbyn seemed more determined to protect Putin’s reputation than British citizens. The most humiliating moment for the Labour Party would come at Corbyn’s hands, as he stood in Parliament and demanded the prime minister explain whether she had complied with Moscow’s ludicrous request to be sent a sample of the Novichok nerve agent used to poison the Skripals, so that, as he later clarified, “they can say categorically one way or the other” whether the Russian state-manufactured nerve agent used in the attempted assassination of a Russian ex-spy belonged to them.
The response from Labour’s own backbenchers to this staggering naiveté was so brutal that the deputy speaker was forced to intervene to ask them to stop shouting at their own leader. It led to a wave of statements issued by Labour members of Parliament condemning Corbyn and supporting the government’s position on the attack, one of whom initiated an early-day motion identifying Russia as the culprit.
It was a disastrous public-relations debacle for the party, but the evidence that continued to emerge made it all the more damning. Not only had Labour got it wrong, but by attempting to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, he only added fuel to the disinformation war being waged by the Kremlin. Labour’s approach to foreign policy had descended into farce long before the suspects were paraded on Russian state media as simple tourists longing to fly into the country to visit Salisbury Cathedral.
As the book reveals, Labour’s position on the Salisbury poisonings even provoked fury among members of the Labour leadership’s senior advisors. James Mills, a former senior advisor to both Corbyn and then Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, was reported to have said that position would cost them the election.
Speaking to Foreign Policy about the Salisbury fallout, Mills said while that he didn’t think the event on its own had an impact on the 2019 election, “it was one of those cut through moments that many voters notice, which added more volume to the chorus of our detractors.”
“At the time we were expecting a potential snap election, and we were targeting patriotic brexit/leave voters, so I doubt it helped us with those voters as it helped the Tory attack lines permeate and crowd out our more positive messages,” he said.
Corbyn’s former senior advisor Andrew Murray, someone who certainly can’t be described as a Russia hawk, said “we were wrong.” Speaking to Pogrund and Maguire, Murray also went further, by confirming what Labour’s fiercest critics had said all along about the party’s response: “We just didn’t think the Russian state would be so stupid and brazen as to do something like that.”
This suggests that it wasn’t a fear of getting it wrong that drove Labour’s position, but a fundamentally flawed understanding of Putin’s a violent, oppressive mafia kleptocracy, which routinely murders its opponents in cruel and unusual ways.
But Labour’s foreign-policy positions under Corbyn weren’t an unfortunate accident. Seumas Milne, the man who is alleged by former staffers to have edited speeches to remove critical positions against Russia, has a long history of defending or downplaying Russian military aggression, and was even hosted by Putin at the Valdai Discussion Club.
Labour’s official foreign-policy positions routinely fell in line with Kremlin talking points, and the pro-Labour commentariat provided fertile ground for conspiracism. While Labour’s indifference on Syria did not cut through to the British electorate, who have grown weary of conflicts in the Middle East since Iraq, Corbyn’s team fundamentally miscalculated when they attempted to give Putin the benefit of the doubt following a chemical-weapons atrocity that killed a British civilian on the streets of Salisbury.
Some 73 percent of the British electorate were convinced Russia was responsible for the Russian nerve agent attack on a Russian ex-spy, and only 5 percent of the population thought otherwise. While Britons were watching the scenes of horror as chemical-hazard response teams were deployed to the streets of Salisbury, Milne was warning the press lobby about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Milne was certainly using his considerable influence, but he was using it in defense of the Kremlin, not the British people—and Corbyn went happily along with him.
Foreign policy was never going to win Labour’s anti-imperialist leader a general election. But the electorate’s perception that Labour was eager to defend the culprits behind a war crime on British soil ensured that Labour could not escape its eventual defeat.
Ultimately, in the case of the Salisbury poisoning, by prioritizing Milne’s anti-imperialist approach to the Kremlin, Labour sent a message to voters that it put its own ideological positions above the safety and security of the British people. After electing a new party leader, the lawyer Keir Starmer, who represented Marina Litvinenko, the widow of another Putin poisoning victim, it is hopefully a mistake it won’t make again.