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24 January 2023

What would foreign policy look like in a Labour government?

David Lammy’s priorities appear similar to Rishi Sunak’s – the difference is he may be able to actually deliver them.

By Freddie Hayward

Labour’s understanding of international politics is three-fold. First, there is deepening competition between great powers. Second, the world economy is so entangled it is dangerous. Third, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy has become blurred. 

In a speech at the think tank Chatham House today (24 January), the shadow foreign secretary set out what he thinks this means for British foreign policy. David Lammy called for the UK to rebuild trust with its allies in Europe and the US. He restated Labour’s commitment to Trident and Nato (a move designed to dispel any doubts about Labour’s stance on national security). He called for the UK to catch up with the US and China’s progress on green energy and pledged to put climate change at the centre of the party’s foreign policy. It was his most comprehensive speech yet.

Foreign policy doesn’t feature much in the daily churn of Westminster because the two main parties agree on the fundamentals. Both unequivocally support Ukraine. Both want to resolve the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol (even if their solutions are different). Both support the main international institutions and say they want closer relationships with our allies.

Lammy also confirmed that Labour backs the government’s “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific even if he doesn’t accept the term. His justification was that the region was a geopolitical “centre of gravity”. True – but that doesn’t explain why the UK should follow. The New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe, for instance, has argued that the UK’s limited resources would be better spent securing its place as a regional power in the European arena. Or as Lammy himself said in a speech last year, “The government has pursued an Indo-Pacific tilt but it must not do so at the cost of our commitments to European security.” Perhaps reminding voters of the UK’s weakened international stature will not win elections.

The speech also contained some vague criticisms of globalisation as well as some vague praise for globalisation. Lammy’s declaration that Labour would pursue a “take back control” foreign policy felt crowbarred into an address that was largely about restoring the UK’s international standing and rebuilding multilateral institutions.

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However faint, Keir Starmer made a clear link between regional devolution and the Brexit vote in his New Year’s speech, outlining plans for a “take back control” bill. If Labour wants to prise that slogan apart from Brexit, and, as Phil Tinline has pointed out, taking back control as a political concept is not exactly unique to Brexit, then it may need to explain its relevance more explicitly.

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On Europe, Lammy reiterated that Labour would pursue a closer relationship with the EU without the UK rejoining the customs union or the single market. He said he wants to secure a defence pact with the EU, and resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol. And then look to improve the UK’s trade deal with the EU when it comes up for review in 2025.

Rebuild trust with our key allies? Drop the bombast and brinkmanship? Isn’t that Rishi Sunak’s schtick? One difference is that Labour might actually be able to carry it out. Sunak is hemmed in by the European Research Group in parliament and a breakdown of trust with the unionist parties in Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether the mistrust between the government and the Democratic Unionist Party is too great for the latter to revive the collapsed Northern Ireland Executive. Labour would enter these negotiations with less political baggage.

There is a caveat to all recent shadow cabinet speeches: the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves is still working out how much money to give each department in the event of a Labour government. Those decisions will depend on the state of the public finances and the appetite for risk among Starmer’s team. Labour will need to present a coherent, costed manifesto in 2024 – and some departments won’t get all the funding they want or need. 

That’s why Lammy wouldn’t say whether he had the money to bolster the diplomatic corps, resource the armed forces or increase foreign aid spending from 0.5 to 0.7 per cent of GDP. (On the latter, Labour will also be mindful that 50-60 per cent of people believe any spending cuts should fall on foreign aid.) Likewise, he would wait and see whether to retain the merger of the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development.

But the lack of funding commitments doesn’t make these policy announcements irrelevant. At this stage in the electoral cycle, Labour is simply signposting its priorities: a less noisy, internationalist foreign policy that repairs alliances damaged during the Brexit wars.

[See also: Oleksiy Danilov interview: “Weak people always come up with excuses not to act”]