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29 November 2022

“You don’t trash your neighbours”: David Lammy on global Britain under Labour

Would UK foreign policy be any different if Keir Starmer’s party won power?

By Harry Lambert

David Lammy does not want to make news. When your party is on track to pick up 250 seats at the next election, why would you? Lammy has been shadow foreign secretary for a year as of this week: when he took up the role, Labour were tied with the Tories in the polls. Now they are on course perhaps for a greater majority than in 1997. The polls will narrow, but this is the year that a Labour victory has begun to feel inevitable. This shift has very little to do with Lammy’s time shadowing one of the great offices of state, but it still gives him the chance to shape Britain’s role in the world if Labour win. The question is: what would change?

Britain could, he told me in his Westminster office, “be one of the world’s great conveners. The UK is in a unique position. We have a seat on the UN Security Council. We are a major player in the G7. We’re in the G20. We are the bridge between the United States and the European Union. And we have outsize opportunities because of the importance of our language.” If this ambition, and accounting of our relevance, has a familiar ring, it may be because every British government of recent times has expressed it. “Foreign policy in this new era,” Lammy replied when asked what would be special about a Labour administration, searching for his theme, “has got to be cognisant, mindful, centred on the climate emergency.” Rishi Sunak, he was eager to stress, dragged his feet in choosing to attend the Cop27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh this November. Labour would never have done so.

But what does that matter? Labour, I suggested, would have no more power than the Tories in convincing China and India to stop burning fossil fuels, which they failed to commit to doing at Cop26 in 2021. What power could Lammy wield that Alok Sharma, the UK’s Cop president, could not? 

Having been in parliament for 22 years, Lammy is adept at charmingly avoiding the premise of a question. He turned again to Britain’s place “alongside China” on the Security Council, before citing, as so many do, the supposed features of our soft power, from the BBC to the Premier League. The UK, he noted – as if it were relevant – is the world’s sixth-largest economy, fuelled by a global financial centre in the City. “It would be extraordinary,” he claimed, “to suggest the United Kingdom does not have power.”

Britain may indeed be powerful, but it is not clear what power Lammy thinks we have over China, the great polluter of the age. Naturally he did not want to concede the alarming reality: that the UK is barely a relevant player in the fight to halt climate change.

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The evening before we spoke, I watched Lammy deliver a lecture in London at which he seemed to recognise Britain’s impotence over China. In 1997, he noted, “the UK economy was almost double the size of China’s. Today, China’s economy is roughly six times the size of the UK’s.” The world’s “economic gravity”, he conceded, has shifted. So has political power.

So what can any British foreign secretary hope to achieve today, outside the EU, other than acting in the slipstream of US foreign policy? Lammy sees a role for greater British leadership in international aid, criticising the West’s failure to distribute vaccines globally. He said “it makes no sense” for the government to cut aid funding “when the United States, Japan and France are stepping up”.

[See also: Rishi Sunak needs more than a good tone to beat Labour]

“The government’s commitment is really to bilateral aid, not to multilateral forums,” he said, contrasting its approach with Labour’s. “Of course the UK can’t compete with China’s Belt and Road initiative [building infrastructure in the developing world] on its own. The only means of doing that is in these multilateral forums. That is why you don’t trash your neighbours”.

That comment captures Labour’s plan for power: tying every error of the Johnson and Truss eras to Sunak. Lammy spoke of Boris Johnson’s bid to break international law over the Northern Ireland protocol, and Liz Truss’s refusal to describe France as an ally, as if the two hapless prime ministers were still in office. Their failed leadership has led to Labour’s rise – allowing the party (and Lammy) to avoid questions that once seemed insoluble, such as those provoked by Brexit

Lammy led his party’s opposition to Brexit. After finishing fourth in the contest to be Labour’s mayoral candidate for London in 2016, opposing Brexit became the cause that made his name in the late 2010s, particularly online. He has gained over half a million Twitter followers in the past five years: within Labour, only current or former party leaders have more.  

In his best-known book, Tribes (2020), a thoughtful rumination on political division, Lammy sought to address the causes of Brexit. In places such as Wigan and Peterborough (where he went to school) “there is no way for us to bring these jobs back”, Lammy wrote, of post-industrial decline. He argued that the old economy has gone and technological progress, rather than foreign labour, is to blame – the effect of migrants “on low-skilled workers’ wages is tiny”, he added.

That may be true. But it is not, I put it to Lammy, a message likely to play well in places that voted for Brexit, as a majority in Peterborough and Wigan did. What is Labour offering these voters? This animates him, drawing him to the edge of his sofa, his eyes alive and arms wide: “As the former skills minister [from 2007-8], I can tell you: when we came to power, there were no apprenticeships, they were barely done. We introduced the apprenticeship levy! We had the Leitch review, we created the sector skills councils, we took skills seriously! The Tories got rid of the regional development agencies that really were gripping these issues. That’s why so many of these communities turned away from free movement. That’s the truth.”

Every government, I contest, has a skills agenda. “We need a Labour government to invest in skills,” Lammy says, again talking of a way Labour could spend money (at another point, he criticises the Tories for cutting our army to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars). Labour, as ever, are eager to invest. How that is funded is another matter. I pressed him on whether Labour would do anything to redress the fundamental unfairness of the UK’s tax system: that unearned income, from housing or stocks, is taxed at a far more generous rate than income earned from actual labour.

If Labour has no plans to change this, how would a Starmer government break from the “neoliberal consensus of recent decades” that Lammy decried in his book? Lammy was reluctant to be drawn into criticising the party leadership. “I’m a lawyer by background. I understand how the system works. I have a portfolio. And I do believe that British people like to see discipline within a political party.”

He offered little to dispel the sense that Labour sees more spending as the solution to every issue, or “cuts” as their cause. When I asked Lammy how he would prevent 38,000 people illegally entering the UK in small boats, as they have this year, he cited Tory cuts to “the National Crime Agency and our Border Force, so we’re not dealing with the gangs and we’ve got no enforcement mechanisms”. He suggested Labour can solve the issue by negotiating a new deal with the EU.

Shortly before taking up his post last year, David Lammy was reported to have made a divisive comment that seemed to undermine everything he argued in Tribes. He was said to have described women who oppose gender self-ID as “dinosaurs hoarding their rights”. I asked whether he stood by that view; he responded by insisting he was misquoted, and was referring to men who opposed the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, not women today. “I was raised by women,” he told me. “It’s not something I could say, no.”

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

[See also: Labour disowns “patronising and paternalistic” foreign aid]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince