The Labour premiership of Tony Blair was one of extraordinary domestic achievement that changed Britain for the better. But Blair’s time in office will always be remembered for its foreign policy errors in the wake of 9/11.
The lesson is that Labour prime ministers don’t get to choose whether to focus on challenges at home or abroad. From the off, they have to be ready for both. They must pursue social and economic renewal but also make far-reaching diplomatic choices that will shape the country’s place in the world – and define their own legacy. If Labour wins in 2024, Keir Starmer will therefore need to be ready to navigate the tortuous relationships and compromises of the international stage.
We already know the global landscape that will greet him will be far less benign than that of the late 1990s or early 2000s. The killings in Gaza are unlikely to be followed by even tentative steps towards a fair and lasting peace. The long-term resolve of Western countries to support Ukraine and deter Putin is in doubt. The combination of interdependency and strategic rivalry with China is a recipe for an unpredictable and risky relationship. Rich countries everywhere are struggling with new 21st century challenges, from undocumented mass migration to cyber security. And our collective action to limit global heating remains too little too late.
Then, throw in the plausible possibility of a second Trump presidency. If Starmer comes to office at the same time as Donald Trump, a Labour government will need to be ready for a US administration defined by chaos, isolationism and succour for extremism. There will be much that is outside the UK’s control. We can expect populism and autocracy to be turbocharged around the world. Indeed, a Trump return would undoubtedly influence the choices the Conservatives make in the UK about their future direction.
But Labour’s early choices can still shape things for the better. First, Labour can quickly forge a new foreign and security pact with the EU, so that the UK and our closest allies work in lockstep, in a deep and structured partnership. On almost every critical global issue our interests and values align with those of Germany and France and we will have more influence together than apart.
Second, a Labour administration can bring predictability and professionalism to British foreign policy after years of chaos and incompetence, a period marked by constant ministerial turnover and the undermining of the civil service. New ministers should expect to be in post for most of a parliament so they can build close relations with their peers. In turn they should place trust in permanent officials to reinvigorate our once strong diplomatic and development capabilities. And they should keep structural changes to an absolute minimum, which unfortunately means ruling out a de-merger of the foreign and development departments unless there is an overwhelming case for change.
Third, Labour should make its international choices with reference to the future not the past, based on clearly articulated principles and priorities. The party cannot define itself in terms of the events of the last decade. The Brexit vote is receding into history fast. Forging a future economic relationship with the rest of Europe will be hard enough without allowing the right-wing media to scare Labour into believing that each pragmatic act of reintegration is a betrayal of working-class leave voters. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn’s time as Labour leader is a fading memory and Labour no longer needs to prove that Keir Starmer is his own man. The party should not be scared to say what it thinks on an issue like Gaza just to distance itself from the former leader’s harmful views.
Few Labour figures come into politics because of their passion for global affairs. But Labour has always known that centre-left values matter overseas just as much as at home. The next Labour government will be a force for good in a troubled world.
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