In January of this year, the government was planning to sign away our new 5G network to Huawei, despite growing pressure from across the Trump administration across the Atlantic. Since then, the Chinese government has engaged in a coverup of vital information relating to the initial coronavirus outbreak,. It has actively suppressed freedom and democracy in Hong Kong and continued its abhorrent campaign of persecution and possible genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Slowly but surely, China is becoming a central challenge for British foreign policy. Through a perfect storm of consecutive disasters, the Chinese Communist Party has gone from being a necessary evil to an existential threat to the West in the space of just a few months. We are watching battle lines for this new cold war being drawn.
Inconveniently for the government, the Labour Party is now led by moderates who are keen to be seen, unlike their predecessors, as sensible and – crucially – tough, when they are required to be so. Sir Keir Starmer regularly writes in the Times and the Daily Mail. He was featured in a positive light on the front page of the Telegraph on VE Day, a remarkable achievement for any Labour leader after the legacy left by his predecessor.
Foreign policy under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour seemed to consist of siding with everyone except Britain. Whether it was Hamas, the IRA or President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, they appeared to seek out the most heinous position to take on each issue. Unsurprisingly, the Corbynite left is now appalled and dismayed that Labour is calling for a firm stance against China, rather than leaping to the defence of a ruthless communist dictatorship.
Starmer has achieved a great deal in his short time at Labour’s helm. He has made substantial progress towards changing the Opposition’s image and direction. But his top-down transformation of his party has not been seamless. Corbyn and his allies spent five years digging their roots deep into Labour’s foundations – that can’t be upended overnight. There are still plenty of traces of Corbynism within Labour and when it comes to China and that manifests itself in very troubling ways.
Last week, Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for mayor of London, tabled a motion in the London Assembly calling for the city of London to de-twin from Beijing. Labour representatives voted it down (thanks to their Green Party representatives abstaining) and later passed a softer motion promising a “review” of the twinning arrangement.
Naturally, Bailey jumped at the chance to attack Labour, alleging that they had turned their backs on Hong Kong and the Uighurs and “apparently don’t… oppose genocide”. His Labour counterparts refuted those accusations in the strongest possible terms but failed to offer any explanation for why they believe London and Beijing should remain twinned.
In much the same way as the Corbyn-era Labour party, these representatives appear to be willing to countenance just about anything in order to avoid being on the same side of the argument as the Tories. Even a possible genocide taking place in Xinjiang isn’t enough to persuade them to vote the same way as their opponents.
This approach sits in stark contrast to the approach of the new Labour leadership, who broadly support the government’s stance on China, often calling for it to go even further. That’s because the Corbynites, having lost control of their party, have walled themselves into a corner. They must oppose both the government and the Opposition. They must be the Opposition’s opposition. And that often means doing intellectual gymnastics in order to justify unjustifiable positions.
The Corbyn wing of the party has been leaderless and directionless since the general election. They have had no one to rally around. Senior Corbynites including Richard Burgon, Ian Lavery and Barry Gardiner were swiftly removed from the shadow cabinet following Starmer’s ascension. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the face of Corbynite continuity, was also booted off the front bench for sharing an interview in which the actress Maxine Peake claimed that US police had learned the practice of kneeling on people’s necks “from seminars with Israeli secret services”.
Without a person to throw their weight behind, frustrated Corbynistas have to find another way of making their voice heard. Given the complexity of their relationship with Brexit and the effectiveness so far of Starmer’s holding the government to account on coronavirus, they don’t have a great many options. Yet they once again seem to be making a disastrous error of judgment as they edge closer and closer to apologia for the Chinese Communist Party.
It really is remarkable how often the acolytes of the Corbynite Left, priding themselves on being on “the right side of history”, end up backing some of history’s most brutal regimes.