Labour’s electoral conundrum lies in reconciling the gulf between its traditional working class voters, who in many places appear to be in exodus to the Tories, and its growing support amongst younger, city-dwelling voters.
This dichotomy is not new. The Labour party was founded on the political demands of the trade unions with the intellectual backing of middle-class Fabian socialists. And this symbiosis had survived ever thus. The difference is now how this balance falls and the issues that define the divide.
The focus of the latest Fabian Society pamphlet was on winning the hearts and minds of constituents in 125 seats we need to deliver at the next election. It found that the majority of voters in these seats were neither extremely working class nor extremely leave-voting, or vice versa. They were characterised as working-class leaning seats, outside of the big cities that require one-nation appeal. The pamphlet outlines ways in which the party can better appeal to these parts of the country – but what role, if any, do Labour’s foreign policy ambitions have in this landscape?
Beyond the focus on Brexit over the last few years, foreign policy, the old adage goes, is not a doorstep issue. In these seats, people on ordinary working incomes have concerns that touch their daily lives, like the quality of their children’s school, affordable social care, and job security – not the intricacies of the UK-China relationship nor the reform of multilateral institutions. However, Labour’s foreign policy vision, ambition and narrative can play a number of important roles.
First, it can help to rebuild confidence in the Labour party amongst the electorate and dispel the myth that Labour is not patriotic enough. Foreign policy is fundamentally about working on the international stage to pursue national objectives – whether you believe that is achieved in cooperation with other nations or by exerting your national sovereignty.
A coherent foreign policy vision can foster the trust of the electorate, demonstrating the party understands their challenges and is willing to stand up for them. It provides a window into how the party sees Britain, its future and its place in the world.
It can also help build an image of a government in waiting. Forging strong relationships with world leaders and sister parties and being active in international forums in opposition are essential. The key here is whether the electorate can imagine Keir Starmer MP or Lisa Nandy MP stood up on a stage next to Joe Biden, Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin – and whether they think they will do the right thing by Britain.
Foreign policy can also make real change to the lives of voters in these seats. Nandy is fond of the alliterative phrase ‘football, fraud and flooding’ to illustrate the issues that matter to her constituents. These issues have real impacts in the community but are affected by the global system and require global solutions. Labour’s foreign policy ambition and narrative should seek to make these links clear and respond to the issues that MPs up and down the country hear in their surgeries every week.
Finally, articulating a clear and coherent foreign policy can act as a vehicle to bridge the gap between liberal and small ‘c’ conservative voters by finding common ground through the expression of values. Polling earlier this year by the European Council of Foreign Relations found that far from sticking their heads in the sand, most Britons are pragmatic internationalists, open to ‘greater cooperation with international partners’. They are willing to engage with the world where the benefits are clear, for instance, on allowing free migration for NHS nurses.
Foreign policy must be an extension of our values at home. Britons are rightly proud of the UK’s global reputation for trustworthiness, fairness, tolerance, creativity, diplomacy and respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law – all things we value at home. This must be maintained.
Delivering all of these elements will not be easy. Labour needs to ‘show not tell’ its love of country in a way which is reflexive but does not veer into narrow nationalism. We have not adequately worked out how to communicate the strong linkages between the global and the local and navigate difficult trade-offs in a way which garners the buy-in of the British public. And clearly, dealing with issues of Britain’s past and our new status as a middle power requires sensitivity to avoid over-correcting in either direction.
The Fabian’s latest pamphlet calls for the party to ‘tread a fine line between reconnecting with working-class seats, but without overcorrecting and failing to appeal to the other essential places’. To do this, Labour’s approach to its domestic and foreign policy must be underpinned by values to deal with the challenges of today. Its ambition must reassure the electorate that their safety and security is its priority and be open about how it will do that. It must be founded on solidarity, seeking solutions to shared challenges rather than pitting workers in Britain against workers in other parts of the world. It must aim to rebuild trust in Britain and restore its reputation as a trusted partner. It must be positive yet self-reflexive – acknowledging our past, its continued influence and our place in the new world order. Only this can help build a new more inclusive British foreign policy that all parts of the country can support.
Labour’s foreign policy may not be the answer, or even a significant part of the answer, to Labour’s electoral woes. But it can act as an amplifier, to reassure voters and support efforts to paint Labour as a future government in waiting.