What connects the Labour Party’s response to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and a McDonald’s milkshake? Superficially, very little, except that they are both unpalatable and both originate in the US. But they have more in common than you might expect.
McDonald’s milkshakes are just one of a number of foodstuffs that are in short supply or unavailable in England, Scotland and Wales. Those shortages are in part a result of the UK vote in 2016 to exit the European Union, and the Conservative Party’s subsequent decision to interpret that vote as an instruction to leave not only the EU’s political structures, but its customs union and the European Economic Area as well.
Both decisions have led to shortages of one kind or another. The departure from the single market is behind staff shortages that are afflicting businesses across the retail and hospitality industries, most significantly among hauliers. The exit from the customs union has a direct effect on what can and can’t come into the country swiftly. Simply put: Brexit means that it is harder to get goods delivered to the UK and harder to hire people to transport, sell or serve those goods once they have arrived here.
Labour and the Conservatives are still in denial about the consequences of leaving the EU. Rishi Sunak’s nervousness about borrowing makes him a relatively isolated figure; some think that the money markets will tolerate higher levels of debt than usual because of coronavirus, while others argue that Joe Biden’s expansive fiscal strategy suggests there is a greater appetite for government borrowing. But several in the government – not all of them Remainers – believe that Brexit means that fiscal conservatism is out for the next decade at a minimum.
The Conservatives can, at least, bring themselves to talk about the realities of Brexit. Labour is altogether more jittery about the issue. Keir Starmer’s involvement in the reorganisation of Northern Ireland’s police force – from 2003 to 2008 he was the human rights adviser to the Policing Board – means that he feels confident when post-Brexit discussions are confined to Northern Irish affairs. However, Starmer and his frontbenchers often seem nervous about addressing Brexit and its economic effects.
“We can’t continually be telling the public they got it wrong,” one frontbencher explains. Another, who had long urged Labour to accept the country’s departure from the EU, bemoans that the party must now “overcompensate” due to its failure to go along with Brexit from the beginning.
Labour’s anxiety over Brexit is embodied by its deployment of Emily Thornberry, the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and the shadow international trade secretary. Thornberry is the most experienced parliamentarian in the shadow cabinet and a natural attack dog. Starmer has made a point of praising her and her team for their diligence in scrutinising Liz Truss. But as far as doing damage to Tory prospects is concerned, Thornberry is wasted at international trade, a brief that, however important, is relatively low down voters’ list of priorities.
[see also: Leader: The delusions of Global Britain]
There are two schools of thought in Labour about how to use Thornberry. One fears that she will frighten the horses, electorally speaking, because she is associated more than any other frontbencher with opposition to Brexit, and therefore it is best not to deploy her at all. The other argues for putting her somewhere she can do real damage to the Conservatives. Shunting her out to international trade means Labour won’t receive the benefits of either choice.
Starmer was one of the authors of Labour’s decision to go into the 2019 election promising to reopen the European question, and so the issue is both personally and politically difficult for him. He should be on firmer ground discussing Afghanistan. Starmer spoke out against the invasion of Iraq, which many in Labour blame both for pulling away resources and attention from the war in Afghanistan and for depleting the American electorate’s willingness to spend money and time in far-off countries. His most natural register in the House of Commons is one of wounded exasperation with Boris Johnson’s lack of grip and focus, and that tone is well-suited to the government’s shambolic approach to Afghanistan.
But when you look at the detail of what Labour is proposing on foreign policy in general and on Afghanistan in particular, the shadow cabinet isn’t any more sure of its footing than it is on Brexit. Labour is near-united on what it is against: it believes that the Iraq War was a mistake; that Russia’s interference in Western democracies is a serious threat; that China’s actions in Xinjiang are little short of genocide; and that the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a disaster. But it has little clarity on what it is meaningfully for.
One of Labour’s first responses to the Afghanistan disaster was to emphasise the importance of working with the UN Security Council, a body whose permanent members include China and Russia, and which can no longer seriously be seen as an organisation capable of reaching conclusions that align with Labour’s foreign policy priorities. Lisa Nandy, the party’s shadow foreign secretary, has been ever-present on the airwaves, but the party’s argument is, in essence, that it would have managed the fallout of the US withdrawal more competently, and that it would be more generous to refugees. The latter is admirable but it doesn’t amount to a foreign policy strategy.
Labour is haunted by the actions of its leaders: by Starmer’s involvement in the attempt to stop Brexit, and by Tony Blair’s involvement in the war in Iraq. The result is a party whose foreign policy approach is simply to avoid the topic, whether it is the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan or the relatively trivial issue of a McDonald’s milkshake.
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat