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Don’t mention the war? History suggests foreign policy can swing voters

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Party strategists may think that tonight's Sky News leaders' debate, focusing on foreign policy - will be less important to voters than the debates on social policy and the economy.

The election campaign so far has been marked by a lack of reference to foreign policy - despite the deaths of hundreds of British military personnel and the high financial cost of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. While a few MPs have criticised the government's policies, war has been conspicuously absent from the main parties' agendas. Yet we should not assume that foreign policy will not affect the election result. In previous elections, Labour governments campaigning on their domestic record have come unstuck on foreign policy.

In 1951 Clement Attlee battled for a third term on the basis of Labour's record, against the backdrop of a severe economic recession and an unpopular war in Korea. His defeat has generally been attributed to domestic factors. Austerity and the 'shopping list' of controls, the fatigue of the Labour government, the redistribution of seats, and problems with national consumption led to the disillusionment of voters and a 'housewives revolt' and middle-class suburbia turned to the Conservatives.

But the 1951 result was not due to domestic factors alone. Until June 1950 the economy performed strongly: the volume of industrial production and exports had increased, and there was a surplus on the overseas balance-of-payments. It was the Korean War and the demands of rearmament that increased the external deficit and diverted funds from domestic spending, prolonging the very austerity to which historians have attributed Attlee's defeat. Domestic and foreign policy were inextricably linked; the Korean conflict played a crucial part in the 1951 election.

In June 1950, North Korea's invasion of South Korea triggered an increase in U.S. and West European rearmament. The British Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell introduced a defence budget which increased taxes, cut domestic consumption, and split the Labour Party (three ministers - Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson, and John Freeman - resigned). At the same time, the conflict thrust foreign policy under the spotlight, raising possibilities of a Third World War. It led to the 1951 election debates over the oil crisis in Iran, the disputes over rearmament, and the Labour drive for peace During the 1951 election campaign, most daily papers prioritised international affairs over election coverage and domestic news.

The candidates' election addresses indicate that foreign policy was a major concern. In a sample of 600 election addresses, only twenty candidates (mainly women Liberals) confined their election address to domestic affairs. More than half referred specifically to the Korean War, the 1951 British rearmament programme, or Attlee's visit to Washington in December 1950. The majority of Tories supported the British rearmament programme, but promised better value for money. In contrast, most Labour candidates sought to justify rearmament as an unfortunate, but necessary, consequence of the Cold War. The overriding Labour theme was the need for peace, 'the calm prudence of Mr Attlee' offered the 'best guarantee' for international security. This motif was reflected in the Labour Party manifesto, which alleged that the Tory 'reaction in a crisis [was] to threaten force'. It gained ground on the eve of the election, when Herbert Morrison, stung by criticisms over Iran and Egypt, accused Winston Churchill of being a warmonger. This prompted Sylvester Bolam of the Daily Mirror to pose the question 'Whose finger on the trigger?' in a series of high-profile editorials.

Comment on rearmament was not confined to the election addresses. The Conservatives were keen to capitalise on the Labour split, insisting that 'it was not a question of Mr. A. or Mr. B. [Attlee or Bevan] but of Mr. C. and Mr. E [Churchill and Eden]'. Labour broadcasts also referred to rearmament, as candidates sought to justify the cost of defence. Campaign notes, a daily publication produced for Labour candidates by the party's Research Department, also stressed this theme and the need for unity over defence.

Historians have overemphasised the influence of domestic factors in the 1951 election at the expense of international affairs. The same is true of the 1970 election. While many psephologists have highlighted the absence of foreign policy from the campaign, this is misleading. The volatility of the electorate throughout the 1966 parliament suggests that Labour had lost the election before the campaign began. It is true that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had been plagued by economic problems and industrial strife, and this undoubtedly estranged many voters. Yet foreign policy also played a part: Wilson was humiliated by Britain's exclusion from the European Economic Community and his support for America's role in Vietnam alienated numerous Labour supporters. There was a marked divergence between voter intention and party identification, and many erstwhile Labour supporters chose to vote Conservative.

Consequently, we should not read too much into the relative absence of foreign policy from the current contest, and following tonight's debate, pollsters will be keen to evaluate its impact on voter intentions. Recession does not blank out international affairs, it just makes the question of priorities (whether the economy and health, or defence and foreign policy) more difficult. As David Hare notes in the Guardian, many voters have already been 'terminally disillusioned by Labour's enthusiasm for the occupation of Iraq'. The Afghan war is equally unpopular, witness the controversy over Brown's letter of condolence to Jacqui Janes, or his erroneous claim that defence spending is 'rising in real terms each year'. Indeed, a recent poll by Newsnight suggests that 64 per cent of people now think the Afghan war is 'unwinnable', while 63 per cent favour the removal of British armed forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2010. Foreign policy has also eroded Labour's activist base. The Iraq invasion triggered a huge drop-off in party membership (the exact figures remain a closely guarded secret). Moreover, the fact that several former activists remain unwilling to canvass for Labour - either on doorsteps or by telephone - could powerfully affect the practicalities of campaigning.

History suggests that foreign policy can and does affect election results, even during a recession. As they prepare for tonight's debate, the party leaders should not under-estimate the potential for foreign policy to derail their campaigns. To many voters, this debate will prove just as influential as the last one.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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