Conferences and conflicts: Why Labour needs clarity at home and abroad

Not a lot of people know this, but Labour organised a special one day conference on Socialist Foreign Policy in 1986. It was part of Neil Kinnock’s efforts to encourage new thinking on issues that obsessed many members.

Kinnock’s Labour was then gradually shifting its position from unilaterally banning the bomb to maintaining the nuclear deterrent and from quitting to staying in Europe – a decade after the referendum on Common Market membership.These necessary revisions were painful for progressives like me who had imbibed the Bennite mantras from the mid-1970s. It’s now clear that these changes took too long to accomplish while overturning the aberrations of the Corbyn era has been mercifully swift by comparison.Details of the novel event in 1986 elude me now but, in any case, the world as we knew it was on the cusp of radical change with the unexpected end of the Cold War round the corner.Before that Paul Kennedy’s influential book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” surveyed 500 years of how the world changes. He recently summarised the thesis: “that a great power’s relative imperial and military position in the world hung upon its relative productive and economic capacity at home, and that uneven growth rates altered the pecking order of states over time.” How exactly is another matter, as he acknowledges.Kennedy put America, the USSR and Japan into the top tier but Russia and Japan soon fell out of contention. Projections are not predictions. Trends can be bucked by technological and organisational breakthroughs as well as policies whether they are past their sell-by date or ahead of the curve. Just imagine what modern warfare would be like without drones or how social media has debilitated morale and unity through populism.Nothing is absolutely ordained. Take Ukraine today. Merely totting up objective factors such as size, population, and military and economic power looks bad for Ukraine relative to Russia. But the balance can be shifted by better Ukrainian morale, arms supplies, and Russian over-reach as well as by continuing solidarity with Ukraine, which local parties should champion more visibly and regularly.Maintaining long-term solidarity is made easier by the stalled momentum of the hard left Stop the War Coalition, a self-styled “militant and principled” body. It’s become such an unhinged parody that Corbyn’s former policy chief, Andrew Fisher has read the last rites. I don’t like to say I told you so. Well, I don’t mind actually. But equivocations persist on the left here and abroad and could grow. Some of its leaders are canny and persistent operators and need to beclearly rebutted by progressives who understand that Russian victory over Ukraine will make further wars more likely.Another case is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, whose curse is geography. It is surrounded by old enemies whose actions were mitigated in the good times. But bad times have come with the neighbours squeezing its autonomy and exploiting its deep divisions.Kurdistan’s leaders are seeking a settlement with Baghdad and could also double down on reforms to unlock its internal potential, encourage women to play a more productive role, cultivate small businesses, tackle climate change (in the fifth most impacted country in the world), and ask its wealthiest to fund investment in natural resources of the mind, minerals, and agriculture. The UK should offer hard-headed support but much depends on the ability of the Iraqi Kurds to pull themselves out of the hole being dug by their enemies.Both cases remind us of the crucial factor of political agency rather than being buffeted by storms and marooned in the doldrums as the object rather than the subject of history.We may be a few months away from seeing the election of a reforming and determined Labour Government that can begin to tackle the gargantuan and intimately connected tasks of domestic revival and reconnecting to allies and friends after so many years of drift.The leadership has devised credible plans via the National Policy Forum for diplomacy, defence, deterrence, development, and trade that will be voted on at the conference in Liverpool. They offer a fresh start to the British story, but new crises and challenges will inevitably assail us from out of the blue.We will all need to be more clear-headed and deliberative in applying our values to global affairs and carefully assessing our interests. We should ensure we never again get ensnared in bubbles disconnected from reality. Labour then has a better chance of making a huge difference in a more bleak, disordered, and complex world than the good old days of the 1980s. In the meantime we must always be prepared at short notice to rally to our friends and allies. The vile and bloody surprise attack on Israel demands we do that and in a united and unequivocal fashion.