The future of the left since 1884

Why Labour must talk about foreign policy

A new Fabian Society pamphlet that maps out Labour’s policy direction under Ed Miliband has successfully set the centre-left all-a-flutter this month. As ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ landed on Fabian members’ doorsteps, the prospect of a clear post-New...


A new Fabian Society pamphlet that maps out Labour’s policy direction under Ed Miliband has successfully set the centre-left all-a-flutter this month. As ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ landed on Fabian members’ doorsteps, the prospect of a clear post-New Labour policy agenda has justifiably excited many people who crave more detail on Ed Miliband’s policy priorities for government.

Alongside chapters on the welfare state, education and the economy, the pamphlet also covers Ed Miliband’s foreign and defence policy. Written by David Clark, it sets out key principles which the author believes are currently guiding Ed Miliband’s foreign policy in opposition, and would form the bedrock of a Labour foreign policy in government.

To his credit, Clark bravely opens by admitting that we don’t have a huge amount to go on. The global credit crisis and the urgent need to shake up our economy and return it to growth has consumed a great deal of Ed Miliband’s thinking since 2010, Clark argues.

But he states that what we have seen from Ed are his “instincts” in foreign affairs, his approach to dealing with the global challenges that the UK faces now, and in the future. Clark suggests this has been evident in the response from the Labour leader to the crisis in Libya, and the revolutions taking place in North Africa and the Middle East.

The former showed greatest detail about Ed’s approach to tricky issues such as military intervention. His speech during the House of Commons debate on Libya shows a detailed understanding of the need for a framework to any humanitarian intervention in order to avoid misplaced foreign adventures with no roadmap to victory – or exit. In fact the speech was heavily influenced by his brother David Miliband, and the former Foreign Secretary was at Ed’s side when he addressed the PLP that Monday night when they to endorse the UK’s military engagement in Libya.

Clark also cites two policy shifts from Ed Miliband that he interprets as internal nods to the Party of Ed’s intention to be different from Blair and Brown. Clark says, “declaring that the decision to go to war in Iraq was “wrong”, supporting recognition of a Palestinian state” shows that Ed is “willing to take strong and controversial positions on grounds of principle”.

It’s worth noting that Labour’s 2005 manifesto actually called for a “viable and independent state of Palestine…alongside a safe and secure Israel”. This is one example of Clark’s attempt throughout the chapter to gently hint at substantive differences between Ed’s approach to foreign affairs and that of his predecessors, notably Tony Blair. However, at the same time Clark provides few examples of the “values based” foreign policy he claims Ed is pursuing.

Indeed, on one hand Clark praises Ed for prioritising the economy over all other issues including foreign affairs, yet on the other he claims Ed’s foreign policy in government would be dedicated to reforming the global economy as part of his “defining project to remodel British capitalism”. This is reminiscent of the infamous top draw of eye-catching policy initiatives that Gordon Brown’s supporters swore he had tucked away throughout their campaign for his leadership.

There is no doubt that we do need to see and hear more from Labour about its approach to foreign policy. The scale of the challenges we face in the world are growing, not diminishing. From the revolutions and evolutions taking place so close by in North Africa and the wider Middle East; the eurozone crisis and extreme pressures on the economic and political structures in Greece; to the lack of clarity about the role of the international community to bringing the violence in Syria to an end.

Clark is certainly right that all this change has prompted an even faster move towards multi-polarity, and that this creates uncertainty for Britain. He’s also right that this uncertainty needs to be approached and addressed through our partnerships and thorough collaboration.

However, experience dictates that to serve British interests and to make progress diplomatically, the UK needs a clear foreign policy agenda. More often than not the UK’s role in foreign affairs is to lobby, cajole, and encourage other countries in Nato, the EU, or the G8 to take action, as Tony Blair was able to do with Africa and third world debt during his chairmanship of the G8.

So instead of Clark’s suggestions for Labour’s future foreign policy, I’ve proposed four of my own foreign policy ‘starting principles’ for Ed Miliband to consider instead:

Recognise our unique role

When the party re-wrote its constitution in 1995, Lord Mandelson proposed amending the international section to state: ‘Labour is committed to the defence and security of the British people and to cooperating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all.’

The UK has a unique role in the world and the breadth of the commitment stated above shows that the Labour Party equally has a unique sense of mission in our relations with other countries. So Ed Miliband’s foreign policy should seek to strengthen our ideas and understand how our traditional commitment to global progress can be applied to our current geo-political challenges.

Use public diplomacy

Ed Miliband has proved that he can connect with people on some key issues, such as the need to fundamentally reform our banking institutions. It’s true that connecting with the public is the job of politicians, and that is no different on foreign affairs than it is on the economy. The coalition have given Labour plenty of opportunities to publicly challenge their approach to foreign affairs, and so Ed should be comfortable in using public diplomacy to make political arguments.

Shake off the Iraq policy hangover

Iraq has left the Labour Party with a policy hangover. Some members – across all wings of the party – still feel unable to address the military action that the UK took and would rather avoid thinking about it. Some people supported the military intervention, and other opposed it. Those who have already changed their minds after the event are not likely to do so again.

In order to be a grown-up party of government once more, Labour members must overcome their hangover and start debating the real issue of substance and challenge facing the UK in the next 10 years, not dwelling on the decision taken by the last Labour government. Ed Miliband and his colleagues must lead this change from the front.

Resist the isolationist option

It is certainly an easy case to make in our austere times that we can no longer afford to maintain an ‘activist’ foreign policy. Military entanglements abroad are too costly in every sense and so it’s time batten down the hatches and focus on fixing our economy at home.

This is a false argument, and Labour should burst the isolationist bubble that is floating around some parts of the media and the Conservative Party. Firstly, it’s not possible for Britain to cut itself off from the world, our economy and society rely on our connections with other countries. But secondly, addressing many of serious foreign policy challenges we face – terrorism, cybercrime, energy security  – fundamentally rely on our ability to work multilaterally with our allies and to have a seat at the table. Indeed, we can only influence the biggest issue of all, the global economy, if we play an active part in global affairs.

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