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The challenges and threats for Labour in the world to come

A patriotic and outward-looking Starmer government could rebuild Britain’s alliances and international standing.

By Jonathan Powell

World leaders are beginning to wake up to the possibility of a Labour government next year. President Emmanuel Macron risked irritating Rishi Sunak when he met Keir Starmer in Paris on 19 September, just before Charles III’s visit. And the Labour leader, who already has a good relationship with Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, had been the star of the show at the gathering of progressive leaders in Montreal the previous weekend. 

If Labour wins the election there will be a wave of relief among our partners and allies around the world after years of mendacious and incompetent Conservative governments. I remember the elation with which Tony Blair was received in 1997 by our allies after 18 years of Tory rule. A similar wave of euphoria would carry Keir Starmer a long way after the election, and it may be even greater than that which greeted Blair, given the depth of the damage that has been inflicted on Britain’s standing in the world, particularly over the past six years. He will, however, need a worked-out strategy, rather than just a warm reception, to reclaim our global influence. That strategy starts with a diagnosis of what has gone wrong.

[See also: The EU’s great power delusions]

After being Blair’s chief of staff for more than a decade, I now work on armed conflicts around the world, and it alarms me how irrelevant Britain has become. Beijing, Addis Ababa, Delhi and Brasília have little interest in what the UK thinks and do not factor British views into their decision-making. This growing irrelevance is not just the result of Brexit but of the way the government has handled events since the EU referendum in 2016. The Conservative Party has been preoccupied by internal battles about the form of Brexit and how “true Brexit” should be implemented. In recent weeks even global warming has become an internal conflict between different wings of the party rather than an existential challenge for the planet.

But this withdrawal into ourselves is not just a matter of the government being distracted. The Tories’ approach to foreign policy has been dominated by the ideology of the extreme Brexiteers, who are in essence “Little Englanders”. They do not want Britain entangled in foreign alliances that might reduce our sovereignty, nor can they bring themselves to accept the reality that pooled sovereignty is a strength in confronting global challenges. In their view, Britain should go it alone. Their original vision of Brexit Britain as a “Singapore-on-Thames” entrepôt between the big trading blocs was never going to work in a developed country with our history. Even if it were credible then, the world is a far darker and more dangerous place now than in 2016.

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Globalisation is in retreat and the direction of travel is decoupling and de-risking Western economies in relation to China. Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is a game-changer and, outside the big blocs, the UK risks being crushed in the dance of the elephants as China and the EU respond. It is laughable to say, as the Brexiteer zealots do, that we can rely on the World Trade Organisation when all sides are throwing up protectionist barriers. In security terms, with a revanchist Russia on the borders of Europe and a rising China, we risk finding ourselves excluded from the key decisions on how to resist them.

[See also: What if China invaded Taiwan?]

Instead of addressing these fundamental threats, ministers seem set on outdoing each other with speeches making threats of illegal action or to leave multilateral agreements – such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – in order to advance their position in the next Tory leadership contest. None of these interventions are taken seriously by our partners because none of it is serious, or about actually trying to solve problems requiring international action. The Conservatives have over the past six years transformed Britain from a nation that was known for making jokes into the butt of everyone else’s jokes.

There is another form of dangerous isolationism at the opposite end of the political spectrum. The far left also urges us to eschew alliances, to distance ourselves from the US and Nato, reduce our military strength and sympathise with Vladimir Putin. That approach would be equally dangerous. In 2019 it allowed the Tories to portray Labour as unpatriotic under Jeremy Corbyn, and this world-view has been firmly rejected by Keir Starmer and David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary. 

Labour has always been internationalist; it was the party that, in the late 1940s, helped create Nato, the defence alliance on which we still depend. We have plenty of assets to deploy, in terms of both hard and soft power, if our diplomats are unshackled from the ideological obsessions of the current Tory government. To be taken seriously again, Britain will need to be seen to have returned as a reliable partner. After a series of Tory governments that have displayed contempt for the sanctity of international agreements, Labour will need to re-establish the UK as a country that negotiates in good faith and keeps its word, and so restore it to its former status as a champion of the rule of law.

Although elections are not won or lost on foreign policy in the modern world, the success of a government often depends on it. It will be important for a new Labour government to explain why it matters – and the party has already begun to draw the connection between re-engaging internationally and delivering security and prosperity in the UK. Brexiteers often argue influence is irrelevant, deriving only from the self-importance of diplomats. But influence is the currency that allows us as a nation to have agency over our future. Unless we can regain influence in the world, it will be impossible to meet at least two of Labour’s five missions – economic growth and becoming a clean-energy superpower. Foreign policy is not some add-on; it is fundamental to meeting the domestic challenges Britain faces.

The first building block is a much stronger relationship with our nearest neighbours. We cannot build a new global foreign policy without having a clear approach to Europe. The government’s Integrated Review of foreign and security policy in 2021 largely omitted Europe; in fact, it devoted more words to the Antarctic than to Germany. When asked by journalists why, an anonymous No 10 source comically responded that Europe policy was “pending”. It still seems to be pending.

There is certainly an opportunity. The era of Schadenfreude, in which some of our former partners seemed to relish our self-inflicted wounds and were worried about the risk of contagion to other member states, has now passed. Our neighbours realise they can’t deal with the new global challenges effectively without Britain, and they want to re-engage. Although there has been some improvement of tone with Rishi Sunak, the relationship cannot be truly rebuilt with this government in place. Trust in the UK has been too badly undermined by the past six years.

This approach does not require us to reverse Brexit now. But a new government can, straight away, pick up the issue of foreign policy and security cooperation – which the EU wanted included in the exit agreement but which Boris Johnson and David Frost rejected out of hand. Labour has already proposed a security pact with the EU and there could be regular meetings with the EU to coordinate our approach to foreign policy and the new security challenges we face. 

We need to work on common approaches to carbon pricing and migration, to re-engage in the Erasmus programme on student exchanges and a whole set of other steps, even before embarking on trying to renegotiate Johnson’s disastrously one-sided Trade and Cooperation Agreement. If we re-engage constructively with Europe, we will become a more relevant interlocutor for both the US and China and can start to rebuild Britain’s position in the world in the 2020s and 2030s.

Similar repair work is needed to revive the transatlantic relationship, the other pillar on which our foreign policy has traditionally rested. Being closer ideologically to a Democrat administration makes a partnership possible, as it did for Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in 1997. Putting Johnson’s contemptible attempts to undermine the basis of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland behind us will help. The main thing that will improve the relationship, however, will be having something to offer the US, and that means being engaged with our neighbours and countries elsewhere in the world. If the next presidential election throws up Trump, the relationship is likely to become much more challenging – but so it will be for everyone. A new government will have a chance to reinforce the relationship with the US institutionally before that happens and build up alternatives in Europe.

[See also: How the war on terror led to the forever wars]

In a more dangerous world, a new government will need to reinforce our defence and security within the bounds allowed by a struggling economy. The armed forces’ morale has been badly undermined and both the way Ministry of Defence funding is agreed and the system of procurement need to be put on a new footing. The most important way of ensuring our security in the face of the new threats, however, is again through alliances. Labour has made it clear it will not change Britain’s strong support for Ukraine, but it could pursue that support more collegially within the alliance rather than trying to strike heroic poses. We will be far more helpful to the Ukrainians if we bring others with us rather than acting alone. There is also a strong case for returning to earlier attempts to build up European defence cooperation, especially with the French and Germans, as an insurance against what may come after the US elections.

A new government will have to give much greater attention to the economic aspects of foreign policy than in the past. If the aim is greater growth, then we will need to make sure we are not cut out of agreements between the giants on trade and energy transition, as well as the battle with China for critical raw materials and technologies. If we want to play a role in the green revolution, we must find a way into fragmenting global clean-energy supply chains. This will require changes in the way government works. A new unit on European and international economic affairs should be created in the Cabinet Office to allow decision-making that integrates national security, economics, trade and investment, science and technology, climate and health in a way not seen before. 

A new Labour government will also have to clean up the chaotic mess created by the Tories’ forced merger of the Department for International Development (Dfid) and the Foreign Office. This has undermined the leading role Britain has played in development around the world and, as elsewhere in the government in the past few years, led departments to focus on their internal plumbing rather than on how we can support the Global South. The remedy should not be another bout of chaotic and ill-thought-through departmental restructuring; instead development should be given a separate voice, building on the development minister Andrew Mitchell’s current damage-limitation exercise. And since it will take time to get back to the target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on development, the priority should be to spend our existing overseas-aid money well, rather than on propping up a failing asylum system at home – and to reacquire the skills lost in the exodus of Dfid staff. That would help rebuild this lost pillar of our foreign policy.

The period of self-enforced absence from the world stage has weakened Britain’s relations in the Global South, particularly coupled with the reaction in Africa and Asia to the Ukraine war. A new Labour government will need a sustained plan to rebuild those relations and convince governments and people that we care about their crises and wars as much as we care about our own. Johnson’s proclaimed “pivot” to Asia has turned out to be so much hot air. If we are serious about playing a role in Asia when we have so few assets, we will have to work with others, which takes us back to building alliances with like-minded countries (and not Liz Truss’s short-lived and vacuous alliance of “freedom-loving countries”). 

A 1957 meeting of Nato, whose creation in 1949 owed much to Labour’s then foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. Photo by Keystone / Getty Images

So far, the Conservative government has done nothing to take advantage of the few potential openings Brexit could give us in terms of independent foreign policy. A new Labour government could build a special role for Britain in conflict prevention and resolution outside the restrictions imposed by membership of a bloc. We don’t have to try to be Switzerland or Norway, but we do have real-world experience in resolving our own conflicts, such as in Northern Ireland, as well as trying to prevent them elsewhere. We could unilaterally adopt a more relaxed attitude to engaging with non-state armed groups (which others call terrorists) and bring warring sides together here in the UK without having to worry about visas or clearing their travel plans with other states. And we could play a role in resolving those conflicts where the US is not focused, including in Libya, Syria, Somalia, Israel-Palestine and, above all, the tragedy of the Sahel from Mali to Niger.

Robin Cook always regretted walking into a trap by talking about an “ethical” foreign policy in an early speech as foreign secretary in 1997. Journalists and activists used the concept to berate him whenever he had to make compromises. What he was quite rightly trying to do was make clear that government would follow a policy rooted in British values as well as being hard-headed in pursuit of our interests. The UK supports extending democracy against autocracy, and we want to fight corruption wherever it appears, but that does not mean we will be able to avoid ever speaking to regimes that don’t meet our standards. The government can work to protect human rights and champion those who have been wrongly imprisoned, but that does not mean we are going to embark on a crusade regardless of the costs. 

Keir Starmer and David Lammy have positioned Labour as an election approaches in exactly the right place, as internationalist and patriotic. Many commentators have pointed out that on the economy they will face a far worse legacy than the Blair government did in 1997. The same is true in foreign policy. The damage done to Britain’s standing in the world in the past six years is far worse than the legacy we inherited from Thatcher and Major. It will not be sufficient for Labour to not be the Tories. The three main pillars of our foreign policy – the US’s strongest ally, a leader in Europe and the soft power of development – have been systematically dismantled. To rebuild effectively, a new government will need a clear strategy in place to re-engage, and a plan to restructure the security and foreign policy machinery of government to deliver that strategy. Then world leaders will truly be able to say: “Britain is back.”

[See also: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers redux]

Jonathan Powell was a British diplomat from 1979 to 1994 and Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. He is CEO of Inter Mediate, an NGO working on armed conflicts

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power