Whichever party wins the next election, there is a growing risk they will be faced with a destabilising world that demands immediate top-level attention. Would Labour be up to the foreign policy tasks that lie ahead?
In a worst case scenario, by late 2024 there could be a perfect storm of international crises: a Middle East riven by division as no progress is made on an Israel-Palestine peace process, while Iran becomes more assertive abroad as things get worse at home; a Ukraine war in which, through sheer attrition, Russia is beginning to get the upper hand; escalating tension over Taiwan and between China and India; growing floods of refugees from disintegrating states in Africa and the Middle East; the collapse of Argentina’s economy and a world tipping into economic recession; and to top it all, a Trump victory in the US presidential election. It could look quite ugly.
Britain would be poorly placed to cope. On the economic and political sidelines of Europe thanks to Brexit, with a shrunken aid budget and struggling trade, the country’s main international contribution is currently in the realm of security, through NATO. But weak economic growth and spending cuts would leave Britain’s military unable to project much power overseas – saddled with the costs of two unaffordable aircraft carriers, slow procurement of next-generation equipment, and a shrinking army.
So foreign policy will not be easy for an incoming government. Of course, Labour is used to this. In 1945, the war was won – but the economy was wrecked, the government broke and the empire disintegrating, all against the backdrop of a looming Cold War. In 1964, an ever-less competitive economy and a precipitous retreat from empire had been capped by France’s refusal to let Britain into the Common Market. Only in 1997 was the world relatively benign.
But the capacity of today’s Labour party to handle foreign policy has been weakened during its years out of power. A paper by Professor Azeem Ibrahim in 2022 concluded that “the Labour party risks entering government unprepared and without the capacity to make significant foreign policy decisions”, a judgement repeated earlier this year.
To be effective internationally, Labour needs an experienced team, a clear policy, and good global connections. How do they match up?
Most British prime ministers arrive in No 10 giving top priority to their domestic agenda, but find themselves ineluctably dragged into foreign crises, summits and controversies. This is almost inevitable: the major international issues that affect Britain – relations with the US, Europe and China, Russia’s war with Ukraine, Middle East peace, managing the global economy – require attention at the very top of government. Much of this cannot be delegated, so it is best to plan for it in advance.
Keir Starmer’s international experience derives mainly from his human rights work and role as DPP, a position with a more global remit than you might think – I met him on a visit to Ghana in 2010, for example, when he was investigating a commercial corruption case. This year he has begun to enhance this experience, visiting Berlin in July to meet Chancellor Scholz; The Hague and Montreal in September, meeting Trudeau and other progressive leaders; and Paris the same month to meet President Macron. He also reportedly speaks regularly to Barack Obama.
But he needs people around him with experience of doing foreign policy in practice. Both the Labour front bench and Starmer’s chief advisers are short on international experience. Hilary Benn served as International Development Secretary from 2003–7; Anneliese Dodds was a respected chair of the European Parliament’s committee on economic and monetary affairs whilst serving as an MEP; Nick Thomas-Symonds taught US politics at Oxford; Chi Onwurah has a long-term interest in Africa; Emily Thornberry was shadow Foreign Secretary from 2016–2020; and a number of MPs maintain close links with the south Asian subcontinent. There is useful experience in the Lords too, where Lords Robertson, Mandelson and Baroness Ashton have all filled top international jobs. But none of these figures are currently in foreign policy roles.
The hope is that while relevant members of the shadow Cabinet may have little overseas experience, they should at least have time to prepare. David Lammy has been shadow Foreign Secretary since 2021 and has undertaken a series of detailed briefings from experts on a range of foreign policy issues. He published a substantive pamphlet for the Fabian Society in March, Britain Reconnected. John Healey has been shadow Defence Secretary since 2020; and Lisa Nandy, though only just appointed shadow development minister, filled the shadow foreign slot in 2020–21, before Lammy.
Of course, once in office, Labour would benefit from the resources of the state. The FCDO is still a Rolls-Royce service with many talented and experienced diplomats, but for some years now has lacked maintenance, fuel and a driver who knows where they are going. After a run of three disastrous foreign secretaries, James Cleverly brought to the office good sense, good manners and a willingness to work with rather than against his civil servants. But then he was replaced by David Cameron, a man with a reputation when prime minister for getting every major foreign policy call wrong. In foreign affairs, as in other areas of government, the chronic instability of ministerial posts has done Britain great damage. Our overseas interlocutors have ceased to know who will turn up next or what their policy will be.
To get the best value from Britain’s diplomatic network and rebuild its international reputation, Labour will need to put in place a team at junior ministerial as well as Cabinet level that will stay in place for the duration of a government. This is the only way to build the personal relationships that are integral to effective diplomacy at the political level, as Lammy himself identifies.
In the meantime, Starmer needs a close adviser with practical international experience. This has been illustrated by his response to the Gaza crisis. This is a complex and delicate issue, with internal political sensitivities for the Labour party. But someone with experience of the Middle East peace process could have crafted a line on a ceasefire that would have been fair to both Israelis and Palestinians while avoiding an internal split and the risk of the Labour leadership appearing unsympathetic to dissenting views, both within the party and in many Muslim communities. That expertise was lacking.
This was just a foretaste of the many similar issues that land on a prime minister’s desk on a daily basis in No 10. To avoid a foreign policy that is merely fire-fighting, Labour also needs a clear strategy that will help steer the day-to-day decisions.
Lammy’s Fabian pamphlet is a useful start, and Starmer himself has underlined his determination to negotiate a new relationship with Europe. But, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, Labour needs something broader, simpler and clearer that will resonate with audiences at home and abroad. In essence, foreign policy is straightforward: know what your real national interests are and defend them; know who your friends are and stick with them; and be consistent and honest in your dealings with all. It is putting it into practice that’s difficult. How tough should Britain be with China over its treatment of the Uyghurs? What can the British government do to prevent African states in the Sahel and the Horn disintegrating? How much support can we afford to give Ukraine? What is Britain’s role in promoting peace in the Middle East? Where to begin the renegotiation with the EU?
These cannot all be prescribed in advance – which is why clear principles and experienced advisers will be essential for Labour to cope with what the world throws at it after the next election. Which might always be sooner than we think.
Image credit: Jade Koroliuk via Unsplash