As McDonnell and Corbyn Disagree over Russia, Is This the Beginning of a New Blair and Brown-Style Split?

By Bush, Stephen | New Statesman (1996), March 23, 2018 | Go to article overview

As McDonnell and Corbyn Disagree over Russia, Is This the Beginning of a New Blair and Brown-Style Split?


Bush, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)


After being elected as the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby in 1983, Bob Wareing used to make a yearly pilgrimage to Russia. He witnessed the end of the Soviet Union and, after 1991, how communist authoritarianism gave way to an oligarchic regime. His post-Soviet travels were a particular source of amusement for John McDonnell, who, like Wareing, was a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs. Whenever Wareing returned from Moscow, McDonnell would ask his colleague cheekily if he had noticed anything different since his earlier visits.

McDonnell is now shadow chancellor and Wareing is dead. But among Labour MPs from the party's centre and right, a suspicion lingers that--like Wareing--McDonnell's friend Jeremy Corbyn doesn't realise that anything has changed about Russia or the West since 1991. In the view of Corbyn-sceptic MPs, their leader's default setting is a friendly cheer to the traditional enemies of the United States and reflexive opposition to any show of force by the UK or its allies.

For Conservatives, the same feeling is a cause for hope, even among MPs who are depressed by Theresa May, Brexit or both. "Britain won't make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister," one cabinet minister assured me in the aftermath of the Labour leader's response to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, "because he hates this country and people won't accept that".

McDonnell doesn't believe that his closest ally hates Britain, but the shadow chancellor does regard foreign policy as a distraction from the leadership's mission to win power at the next election. Corbyn, too, wants to win next time, and is willing to compromise where and when necessary.

Foreign policy, however, is Corbyn's passion and that makes him reluctant to abandon long-held convictions for political expediency. Europe is an exception: one thing that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs is that he doesn't regard the EU as "properly" abroad. Corbyn's long-standing principles, and the relative importance he and McDonnell attach to foreign policy, are part of the reason why the two men have been significantly at odds for the first time, over Britain's stand-off with Russia.

McDonnell was quick to declare that no Labour MP should appear on the state propaganda channel RT (formerly Russia Today) and that the Kremlin was responsible unequivocally for the attack on the Skripals. Corbyn stopped repeatedly short of assigning blame to the Russian government, and his spokesman rejected McDonnell's call for Labour MPs to boycott RT, instead suggesting the issue be kept "under review".

Corbyn's spokesman in this instance was communications and strategy chief Seumas Milne, who, in a break with convention, was named by the Press Association and newspapers after comparing the intelligence on the Salisbury attack to the flawed case for war in Iraq. …

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