23 February 2017 – York, UK
by David Heaton
The Labour Party opposition in the UK should be in a mood of high confidence. The Conservative Party has been scrambling around over a confused stance on Brexit for months, while the NHS is in a condition the Red Cross last month described as a “humanitarian crisis”. The Labour Party though finds itself languishing in the polls at a level it has not seen since its wilderness years in the 1980s. Why is this? How can an opposition party be faring so poorly when it has so much ammunition to direct towards the government?
The issue is one of credibility. For the public to have confidence in an opposition party, no matter how poorly the government is doing, they must believe that the opposition can form a credible government. A key part of this is whether they believe the opposition will keep the country safe. At present, the Labour Party is putting out confusing messages on a central element of UK foreign policy, the importance of NATO. This is also becoming a contentious issue with the inauguration of US President Donald Trump and one that the Labour Party, and the British government, will have to get right.
The confusion has sparked in recent weeks due to mixed messages coming from different senior members of the party. The Shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffith, stated in January during an interview to the BBC that it is “very important that we now play a very strong role in NATO, particularly as we are leaving the European Union.” Brexit is, of course, a key issue throughout UK politics at present, but it is defence policy that is sometimes brushed aside as economic and other diplomatic arguments dominated. With the UK stepping out of European Union in the next few years NATO’s importance to UK foreign and defence policy will only increase. On the other hand, however, a spokesman for the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stated that recent NATO deployments to Estonia were a key part of the escalation of tensions between NATO and Russia. The statements from the leader’s office went on to intimate that it was not a priority for the Labour leadership to stick to the terms of the military alliance that is NATO, thus undermining a key feature of the alliance since its creation in the aftermath of WW2.
This may seem like a small comment, but it is considered serious enough for the Secretary-General of NATO to have expressed concern to the BBC. On top of this, the comments from Corbyn’s office came at the end of a week of contradictions that saw him float a wage cap for executive pay one morning, before dismissing it later the same day. The NATO comments only served to feed the sense of confusion and unease from voters on the stance of the Labour leadership. More importantly for Labour’s electoral chances, it is a long established fact of electoral politics that voters will not vote for a party who they do not have confidence in to keep them safe.
As tensions ramp up as a result of the increasingly interventionist policies of Russia as was seen in Ukraine and Crimea, it is more important than ever for a party hoping to come to power to reassure the voters that they will keep them safe. On top of this, it is important that there is no lack of clarity in the unity of NATO. This has been made all the more important by the new US President’s comments that have been greeted with concern by other NATO members and in which he has gone as far as to call NATO obsolete.
What must the Labour Party do to make itself a clear alternative and appear as a government in waiting? In order to appear as an opposition party that is ready to assume the responsibilities of government the Labour Party, and especially its leadership, must ensure that they are clear and coherent on all issues. No party can hope to win an election if they are not considered to be a serious defender of national security. With a disaster ongoing in the NHS and another potential disaster looming with the onrush of Brexit, Labour needs to be prepared to help those that need it most. A firm commitment to NATO must be central. To borrow a phrase from Chris Bryant MP – I believe that NATO is critical to the UK’s national security, I hope my party does too.
Feature Photo: Jeremy Corbyn during PMQs– Flickr, Zongo, 2017
Inset Photo: UK Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicles on Exercise in Poland – Flickr, Defence Images, 2017
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David is the Head of Government and Politics at Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate in York, England. He holds an MA(Res) in Democracy and Elections from the University of Manchester, a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the same institution, and a PGCE in Secondary History from Aberystwyth University. His specialist areas include US Government and Politics. He has worked as a volunteer in the campaign offices of Secretary of State John Kerry in Boston, and Andy Slaughter MP in London.