UK Politics: Corbyn's stance on Russia might yet resonate with voters

Jeremy Corbyn addresses his party
Jeremy Corbyn's cautious approach to foreign policy might turn out to be the right one
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As Conservative and Labour MPs talked tough on Russia this week, Jeremy Corbyn was the lone voice of caution and restraint. Inevitably, he was castigated by the politicians and media. But Max Liu thinks that, when the sound and fury have died down, Corbyn's position might be in tune with many voters.

"Plenty of bettors appear to think May can make political capital from the Skripal affair and the Tories are now [1.97] to win the next election."

Jeremy Corbyn can't win. During his time as Labour leader, supporters and opponents alike have accused Corbyn of failing to provide effective opposition to the Conservative government. First, Corbyn's detractors said he was so weak as Labour leader that David Cameron, and then Theresa May, could do what they liked in office. Good government needs good opposition, was the line spouted by the Corbyn-bashers.

After Corbyn lead a much better election campaign than expected last year, showing that he could provide an alternative that energised millions of voters, his detractors moved to saying that he was failing to provide an alternative on Brexit.

This week, however, Corbyn was vilified by much of the media and some of his own MPs for providing too much opposition. He was deemed unpatriotic and irresponsible for opposing May in her response to the alleged poisoning of former-spy Sergei Skirpal and his daughter, and possible Russian government involvement. That's right, Corbyn is now going too far in his opposition to the government.

Corbyn is right to urge caution on Russia...

As Tories and some Labour MPs rattled their sabres like it was 2003, Corbyn urged caution, raised the Tory party's financial donations from Russian big business, and said May should rely on evidence.

Corbyn also made the not unreasonable observation that British intelligence has been wrong about such matters in the past, at the same time as condemning the attack on the Skripals in the strongest terms and calling for the British government to support Putin's opponents in Russia.

This last point was lost amid the furore but it's vital, especially as Putin goes into today's Russian elections at [1.27] to win over 70% of the vote. Those odds reflect the fact Putin has barred his only really formidable opponent, Alexie Navalny, from standing for the presidency.

Interestingly, Navalny this week criticised May's expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats - a move matched by Putin over the weekend - saying it was tokenistic and arguing that to punish the Putin government, May needs to move against Russian politicians and businesses with assets in the UK.

... and it might yet prove popular with the public

Corbyn was accused of misjudging the mood and a new poll by Opinium substantiates that claim. It shows 39% back May's handling of the crisis and only 16% back Corbyn. This suggests that May can boost her popularity by continuing to take a firm position against Russia. The same pollster puts the Tories ahead of Labour by one point for voting intention, although YouGov have a two point lead for Labour.

It's uncertain where the current crisis will lead UK and Russian relations, but the type of stance adopted by May this week often tends to be popular in the short-term, but less popular as time goes on and rhetoric is exposed as empty or ill-conceived. Over the weekend, commentators on all sides of the political spectrum have started to recognise Corbyn's measured response to the current crisis as the sensible one.

It could be that voters eventually reach the same conclusion. After all, Corbyn has an excellent record on foreign policy, with his opposition to the Iraq war and intervention in Libya vindicated by history. Or perhaps many people, who have longer memories than their elected officials and are wary of Parliament rushing to judgement, already share Corbyn's caution. The Labour leader has proved that he can talk to the public, over the heads of politicians and media.

That said, plenty of bettors appear to think May can make political capital from the Skripal affair and the Tories are now [1.97] to win the next election. But none of this puts me off backing Labour at [2.06] and believing that, when the sound and fury of past week has died down, Corbyn can win.

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