The future of the left since 1884

Progressive realism

David Lammy MP's speech to the FEPS-Fabian Society New Year conference 2024



Friends, I want to begin by thanking you all. From the very beginning of our party, the Fabian Society has been there.

From the intellectual heft of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, to the Fabians in Ramsay MacDonald’s first Cabinet. From the part you played modernising Labour in the 1990s, to the support you have given today’s Fabians, Keir Starmer, myself, and much of the Shadow Cabinet.

The Fabian Society has always been wise enough to know that political ideas only have real value when they can be put into practice.

This year, Keir Starmer’s leadership means we have our best opportunity in a generation to turn our ideas into change, as the UK goes to the polls in this bumper year of elections around the world.

The choice the British public faces is not only a choice between two parties. It is a choice that will determine the spirit of Britain in a changing world.

Will we be led by a Conservative government which betrays our children on Net Zero to wage culture wars at home? Or a Labour government which unites the country around creating green jobs and protecting the planet.

A Conservative government which treats our European neighbours as opponents? Or a Labour government which recognises, with war on our continent, they are our closest allies and friends.

A Conservative government threatening to break international law to deport refugees to Rwanda? Or a Labour government which knows international law and human rights are fundamental to the British way of life.

Fabians, this is the choice. A Conservative government intent on stirring division.

Or Keir Starmer’s Labour government that will unite the country, repair Britain’s alliances, restore Britain’s values, and reconnect Britain to restore our influence around the world.

A New World Disorder, Fabians. Internationally, times are bleak.

From Ukraine to Gaza, from my parents’ country of Guyana to the Sahel, there has been a cascade of crises.

But these all have something in common – the increasing threat of military force, the indifference to human rights, and the impotence of the rules-based order.

These are not disconnected crises. This is the new world disorder emerging as the old rules-based order erodes.

We face accelerating great power rivalry and the creeping multilateral dysfunction from the WTO to the United Nations. An institution Rishi Sunak treated with such disdain when he refused to attend the General Assembly this year.

While the world debated climate action, he stayed at home to ditch Britain’s climate ambitions and make up nonsense about seven bins.

From vanishing Antarctic Sea ice to Canadian wildfires, there has been a stampede of emergencies. This is a climate in crisis, made worse by Tories playing political games and compounded by geopolitics.

Where the mounting disorder makes it harder to cooperate politically and build a shared green future.

I want us to pause here and, with that Fabian spirit of inquiry, take in the full meaning of the word crisis.

Crisis entered our language originally as a medical term, the moment when the patient either begins to recover or begins to slip away. And the word itself, Krisis, is the Greek for a decision.

Friends, we are living in a moment where the conditions we have taken for granted could be lost forever without action.

After 14 years of Conservative chaos, making working people poorer, reducing Britain’s influence, and dragging our country backward, can we really afford another five?


Can our economy handle another five Tory budgets?


Can our reputation survive another five years of Tory Prime Ministers standing alone on the world stage?


Do we want another half-decade of Tory backsliding on climate action?


Do we want another five years of failure on international development?


Addressing these challenges in a way that is true to who we are, as progressives, requires a fresh approach.

As a movement, from the first Fabian Essays to today, we have always had the same principles. But how we apply them in power has always reflected the context we faced.

Last year, I was proud to publish a pamphlet for the Fabian Society. The vision it lays out is for ‘A Britain Reconnected’ for our security and prosperity at home.

One year on, I want to build on it by explaining the approach that underpins it. I call it Progressive Realism.

Progressive because our foreign policy will be founded on our values of equality, the rule of law, and internationalism.

Realist because we will focus on making practical, tangible progress with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

People have put these words together before, and some have sought to create a false binary between them.

But our approach will combine the best of two great Labour traditions, the commitment to realism of Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary who gave us NATO. And the commitment to progress of Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary who put principle at the heart of foreign policy.

Ernie Bevin, the Bristol barrow boy born into rural poverty, saw more clearly than any aristocrat that the dictators of the 1930s were no friends of Britain and those that admired them had no place in our movement.

He would have wanted us to say loud and clear here today that Vladimir Putin is not just a dictator but the ringleader of a new form of fascism, bringing invasion and oppression to our neighbours. That we cannot let pass.

Ernie Bevin, a man who studied at the Fabian night school, who dared to shout down Stalin at Potsdam, was one of our greatest statesmen.

Who, with his commitment to realism, brought us the NATO alliance that is still the bedrock of our security and fought for a nuclear bomb as he put it with the union jack on top. A deterrent that remains a key element of Britain’s foreign and security policy today.

This unflinching honesty about the security threats we face, about the alliances we have to build, is the realism we need to stand tall to the dictators of our day. But, as much as I admire Ernie, he too had faults. A product of his time, he failed to perceive the historic wrongs of Empire.

And this is where I want to look at Robin Cook, a friend and mentor to so many of us. There was realism to Robin too. But what I most admired about him was his conviction that foreign policy must serve principle.

Who, with his commitment to progressive values, brought our allies onboard over Kosovo, the question of human rights into cabinet, and climate action as a core objective of the Foreign Office.

This was his foreign policy with an ethical dimension, only a phrase, but one that snagged on the limits of what was possible.

We see, at times, in his Foreign Office, the frustrations of idealism that becomes too far removed from realism when it comes to defence or dealing with those with whom we otherwise disagree.

We will learn from his idealism. But, again, as much as I admire Robin, he too was a product of his time. A Foreign Secretary in a more optimistic world, fewer crises, and not as many hard choices.

Friends, Labour’s progressive realism is to put Bevin at the service of Cook.

It is to use realist means to pursue progressive ends. Because our history, as a movement, is telling us you cannot deliver Cook’s idealism without Bevin’s realism.

In today’s world, we can’t let ourselves be forced into a false choice between values and interests, between openness to the world and defence of our nation, between a self-awareness of our history and a confidence in our future, between idealism and realism.

Both are needed. Because when progressives act with realism and practical purpose, we can change the world.

Friends, the new world disorder is claiming lives with the highest number of conflicts in thirty years.

Nowhere is this more visible than the Middle East. In Gaza, thousands of innocent children have been killed, over 85% of the population have now been made refugees, and more than one hundred Israeli hostages are still held as prisoners while rockets still fly into Israel.

The situation is intolerable, which is why Labour has called for a sustainable ceasefire with a humanitarian truce – now – as the first step.

Labour is clear: the violence must stop and we must return to diplomacy to stop the whole region descending into full-scale war.

I have visited the Middle East four times since the horrific terrorist attack on the 7th October. On each trip, I returned with new fears of escalation.

Last week I was in Beirut, where Lebanon’s Prime Minister warned me how close we are to a disastrous full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

In November I was in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories. In the West Bank, I saw shot-out cars and met victims of shocking settler violence.

And now the Red Sea. For the past two months, the Houthis have harassed civilian vessels indiscriminately despite condemnation by the UN Security Council, despite warnings from the UK, US, and ten other nations.

Those attacks continued, putting civilians and military personnel in danger and threatening a devastating rise in the cost of food in some of the poorest countries in the world.

That is why Labour supported the targeted action last week. No realist can ignore the consequences of closing the Red Sea. And no progressive should sympathize with the Houthis.

The very real risks of escalation across the region are distinct but they all demonstrate the essential importance of preventative diplomacy, a habit, a practice, and an art in which British diplomacy has traditionally excelled but one that needs urgent revival.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Israel and Palestine.

A decade of diplomatic indifference has enabled the enemies of peace, security, and two states.

And there is a danger that after the horrors of the last four months, we simply sleepwalk into further despair.

Realism about conflict must not be confused with pessimism. The Israeli Prime Minister’s rejection of a Palestinian state is morally wrong.

Practically wrong.

And against the interests of all people, Palestinian and Israeli.

The peaceful quest for a Palestinian state is a just cause. As Keir Starmer has said, it is the undeniable right of the Palestinian people.

And the only path to guarantee a just and lasting peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli government must immediately change their approach. From the pain and despair, new will and a new political process must emerge to make two states a reality.

Friends, we must not exaggerate our influence but never underestimate our determination.

A Labour government will push for an International Contact Group to take over from the defunct Quartet to coordinate with our Western and Arab partners over Gaza.

We will create a new Middle East Peace envoy. And, Fabians have no doubt, we will work with international partners to recognise the state of Palestine, as part of our efforts to help bring about a just and lasting peace.

And friends, in our progressive realism, cancel culture will not feature, we will shake the hands we need for peace.

We will work with, not snub, our partners in the Gulf in order to deliver a road to peace and a Palestinian state. Realist means. Progressive ends.

But as we press forward this hard diplomacy, we must not lose focus on the disorder close to home. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has chosen the path of war and committed to it with a war economy.

This is a different Russia even from that which launched its unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

This is a Russia that has thrown in its lot with the rogues of the world system, Iran and North Korea.

Russia is now producing more shells than the West combined. South Korea has supplied more shells to Ukraine than all European countries combined.

We in Europe risk taking our eye off the ball. This is a generational security challenge, a long-term material security threat to Europe that will require a long-term material response. Not for a few months, not even for a few years, but for the foreseeable future.

This is why if I become Foreign Secretary, in my first 100 days, I will travel to Kyiv to demonstrate Labour’s long-term commitment to stop Vladimir Putin and begin work on a pathway towards Ukraine’s NATO membership.

And we will begin work with European colleagues on our proposal for a new UK-EU Security Pact, bringing structured dialogue back to the relationship and a common focus on our continent’s security with Ukraine at the heart.

We will turn the page on the Tory years which put ideology before European security.

This is progressive realism. We will work with, not spurn, our European neighbours in order to support Ukraine and remind the dictator in the Kremlin never to test our commitments. Realist means. Progressive ends.

From the floods to the fires, from ice sheets to the ocean heat, a longer-term crisis is reaching a tipping point.

When it comes to the climate, there is reason for hope. From Paris to Glasgow and to Dubai, COP, for all its flaws, has made progress.

The agreement to transition away “from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner” was an important moment for the world.

Of course, progress is too slow. The hard math tells us we are still off track. But Friends, again, we must not confuse realism with pessimism.

In 2015, after Paris, we were headed to a world warmer by 3.5 degrees.

Today, after Dubai, we are officially headed to 2.4 degrees, with dynamics pointing to getting that below 2.

In 2015, after Paris, globally we were investing $500 billion in clean energy versus 800 billion for oil and gas.

Today, after Dubai, we are investing $1.8 trillion in clean energy, twice as much as in oil and gas.

Friends, we can change our future. With an optimism rooted in reality. In government, we want to deepen this cooperation.

This is why, if I become Foreign Secretary, UK diplomats will work to build a Clean Power Alliance of developed and developing countries to drive forward the transition, set the pace for global action, and lower the cost of clean energy at home and abroad.

Our ambition is an “inverse OPEC” in which countries collaborate on clean power. Because when it comes to energy, if we are not cooperating as much as the oil producers, we cannot be surprised if we keep falling behind.

Britain can only hope to lead on this agenda if we are able to set an example. That is why we will double down on work to reform international financial institutions like the World Bank to help developing countries deliver the clean energy infrastructure they need to decarbonise their economies.

And Fabians, it is why Labour has pledged to end new licenses to explore oil and gas in the North Sea.

Friends, Keir Starmer has set out a mission to make the UK a world-leading clean energy superpower, delivering a zero-carbon electricity system by 2030.

And from the first day, I will work to ensure that the Foreign Office is delivering the international dimension of Keir’s agenda.

Building on what my colleague Rachel Reeves calls securonomics.

And working hand in glove with Ed Miliband, for our Green Prosperity Plan, I will work to get Britain the agreements it needs, to provide the minerals and the markets for its green goods.

Realist means.

Progressive ends.

The climate challenge is no passing moment. It is here for the long term.

And China, not the West, is ahead in the race, with over three quarters of world solar production, with over 80 per cent of the world’s lithium refining, and as the world’s largest sovereign development creditor.

This is a historic shift which our eyes must open to. In many areas, the West is no longer driving industrial modernity.

But Britain must catch up.

Friends, we live in frightening times…

Both geopolitically, and ecologically. We live in a moment of ‘Krisis’. Of decision. Both for Britain and for the world.

If Labour has the privilege of forming the next government, the eyes of tomorrow will be on us.

Will our children grow up in a Britain, where our people are secure, and our planet is protected?

This is not guaranteed.

We need to fight, to plan for the long term and to put our ideas into practice.

Friends, this is a moment where history is asking something of us. Can we meet the challenges of the age like Attlee’s great government of 1945? Fabians, we can!

Can we, like them, lay the foundations for a decade of national renewal Fabians, we can!

Can we, like Labour governments of old make Britain once again an exporter of solutions rather than problems? Fabians, we can!

Can we, like our heroes, say no the dictators? Fabians, we can!

Can we defend our planet, while creating the green jobs of the future? Fabians, we can!

This is progressive realism. A call to action. Robin Cook had a vision, And Ernie Bevin had a saying. Brothers, sisters, let’s build.

The homes, the windmills, the alliances, that will deliver the security Britain needs.

To reach the brighter future, that as Labour, we have always believed in, and our children deserve.

Thank you.

David Lammy MP

David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham and the shadow foreign secretary.


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