I went to my first live political event this weekend, organised by the big tent ideas festival, with actual people in a room together as opposed to talking to each other through their computer screens. It felt like taking a trip back to 2019. Unfortunately, some of the contributions from the speakers felt a little like a throwback to that time as well, particularly in the case of Fabian Hamilton, Labour’s shadow minister for peace and disarmament.
Hamilton was speaking about the UK’s foreign policy, and his contribution revealed how little the Labour party really have changed since Corbyn stepped down as leader – despite the party’s ‘under new management’ message.
Hamilton was asked at the event how Labour would do things differently if the party were in power. What he presented as the next Labour government’s ideas on foreign policy were confused, loaded with contradictions and only really made any sense through the lens of the Corbynista worldview.
He related an anecdote about meeting Kofi Annan when Annan was general secretary of the UN. Hamilton asked Annan why the UN wasn’t doing more to solve world crises. ‘I’m not the president of the world and the UN isn’t the government of the world’, the general secretary reportedly replied. To which Fabian Hamilton’s response was: ‘Well, maybe we should try and rethink that.’ This was a general theme from Hamilton: the idea that the UN should be a form of one-world government which could solve everyone’s problems if only it was given the power to do so.
At another point, Hamilton noted that ‘I voted against every single conflict because I don’t believe conflict is the solution’ before insisting that ‘I’m not a pacifist’. His solution to a lot of the world’s problems could be summarised as: ‘The UN needs to take a very strong hand in this and knock some heads together’. A Corbyn-flavoured naivety about the human condition was the backdrop to all of Hamilton’s words. ‘Inequality is the main driver of conflict,’ he said, which is probably news to people in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and most of the Middle East come to think of it, where sectarianism just may have had a hand in things.
After Shabnam Nasimi, a British-Afghan who was born in Afghanistan, raised a good point about the positive role of the British armed forces in the country given how bad the Taliban government had been, Hamilton seemed to fold like a deck of cards. ‘What we did in Afghanistan was good, but we’re withdrawing… I’m sorry we’re abandoning the country to the Taliban and what they are likely to do.’ How can he think every western military intervention is automatically bad, boast about having voted against intervention at every opportunity, and then not only describe what happened in Afghanistan as ‘good’, but complain about the British armed forces withdrawing from the region?
Near the end, the discussion came onto nuclear weapons. ‘We’ve got to work much harder to reduce those numbers of nuclear warheads, not increase them by 80 warheads as the current integrated review of the British government is aiming to do,’ Hamilton said. Countries who have nuclear weapons should ‘stick to the obligations that they’ve signed up to and not have the hypocrisy of telling the Iranians under the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) they cannot have nuclear weapons when we’re increasing our arsenal.’
All of this wouldn’t be so bad if Fabian Hamilton was just a backbencher. He could then just be dismissed as some socialist Corbyn-era relic still banging out the old tunes. But Hamilton is the shadow minister for peace and disarmament. He’s on the frontbench, part of the shadow Foreign Office team. This isn’t just the left of Labour shouting yet again about the how the West is always bad and should stay out of everything – except at UN level because there Russia and China are somehow going to balance everything out. No, Fabian Hamilton’s views on foreign policy, and indeed, how a prospective Labour government would approach that brief, are official.
There is a truism in British politics that no one votes one way or another based on foreign policy concerns. Except, this has been proven untrue over the last several years by Brexit. That was all about Britain’s relationship with its neighbours and the world at large and it became the biggest issue and helped the Tories get an 80-seat majority. So, the idea that people don’t care about these things doesn’t really hold water.
It demonstrates again how far Keir Starmer still has to go to turn Labour into something much more electorally appealing than it currently is. I can’t even blame Fabian Hamilton too much here – he’s only spouting what would have been considered a very soft version of official Labour foreign policy only a couple of years back. Corbyn’s departure just left a vacuum in certain policy areas and they’ve been neglected since. And it’s no good building a new platform if your foreign policy still makes the electorate wonder if you can be trusted to protect the country from harm.