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10 April 2024

Inside Labour’s foreign policy factory

How Keir Starmer and David Lammy plan to reshape Britain’s role in an age of global upheaval.

By Andrew Marr

Here are two near-certs. First, Labour will form the next government. Second, it will quickly become one dominated by foreign affairs. Inside the Starmer tent, there has been a lot of intense thinking and preparation for that: beyond it, almost no coverage or interest at all.

Around the world, “foreign policy” has become completely interlinked with domestic policy: in gas prices, inflation, migration, climate change, the reverberations of war. The traditional work of foreign secretaries and foreign ministers is being absorbed by the offices of prime ministers and presidents; here, as Labour contends with an age of insecurity, a new doctrine is beginning to emerge.

Let’s remember that being derailed by foreign affairs is a familiar experience for Labour administrations. The 1973-74 oil-price shock helped Harold Wilson win a general election, but then helped gut his government. Clement Attlee remains a heroic figure because all he achieved domestically was set against a darkening Cold War story. It didn’t cross the mind of Tony Blair when he arrived with such optimism in 1997 that he would one day be so strongly associated with the word Iraq.

Blair is also the prime example of the dangers of high-stakes overseas derailment. Re-reading his speech to the 2001 Labour conference after the 9/11 New York attack, you could find yourself almost wet-eyed at the gap between his noble rhetoric, brimming with liberal fervour, and the murderous, grey-grim awfulness of what followed:

“The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause. This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

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The slums of Gaza… Well, there will be no going back under Keir Starmer. Never glad confident morning again. The hubris of Western liberal interventionism is over and foreign policy under the next Labour government will not be modelled on the last. In Labour’s near tomorrow it will be all “security first” and the strengthening of alliances: more Ernie Bevin in 1948 than Robin Cook half a century later.

David Lammy, shadow foreign secretary, has been sent by Keir Starmer on a relentless series of international trips – 44 so far – to build personal relationships and prepare for a new period when British policy will focus on “the middle powers” important for growth post-Brexit – South Korea, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and India. India will be difficult for Labour; it has had historic connections with Pakistan, and Narendra Modi is nobody’s idea of a Guardian reader. But Labour now sees India in almost the same bracket as the United States – a country so important that a friendly relationship transcends normal politics.

As to the United States; what of the overarching “Trump problem”? David Lammy, generally cautious with language, called him a “woman-hating, neo-Nazi-sympathising sociopath” and a “profound threat to the international order”. Few New Statesman readers would disagree. But there is a weary belief in Labour high command that Joe Biden won’t make it, and that Trump is realistic enough to deal, however grumpily, with a Labour government sitting atop a big majority.

To that end, Lammy has been repeatedly in Washington recently meeting Republicans such as Mike Pompeo, JD Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame and Trump’s former national security adviser Robert O’Brien. One of the best-connected British politicians in Washington DC, Lammy has been helped by the former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Some people close to the Labour leadership believe that “if we aren’t too snooty” then Trump’s transactional instincts mean that Starmer could sit down with him and find ways towards a free trade agreement; Britain under Labour would remain a relatively high spending member of Nato and less problematic for Washington than Brussels.

Be that as it may, the Trump problem may be the mere amuse bouche for what a Starmer government faces abroad. Israel’s behaviour in Gaza, in the wake of the Hamas slaughter and abduction, illustrates how domestic and foreign politics is becoming impacted in a way not quite seen, perhaps, since the Spanish Civil War. Both main parties are now badly split, and the question of Israel’s future – its extent, its security, its constitutional settlement – looms in the near distance. It will require extraordinary statesmanship, depth of knowledge and wisdom to steer a Labour government through what is coming.

A “closer trading and security relationship” with the EU is much easier to say than to negotiate, yet will be pivotal to Labour hopes for economic growth. Labour has been emphasising a closer security arrangement with the EU for the Trump era, to include not just military and intelligence but also industrial security and technical cooperation – perhaps an interesting back door beginning to open.

The Labour team is focusing on 2027 as the pivotal year – of the French presidential elections and the possible success of Marine Le Pen, and the year by when China’s Xi Jinping has told his armed forces to be ready for an assault on Taiwan. But by 2025, when Labour ministers are barely in their chairs, we may see the consequences of a collapse of the Ukrainian front line followed by an even more aggressive Russia pressing against the Baltics, Poland and Scandinavia and the huge economic and refugee consequences of that. The shadow defence secretary John Healey recently told the New Statesman that Labour would pivot away from Asia back towards Europe.

This makes economic as well as geopolitical sense and, more than in previous governments of any stripe, the economic growth agenda has become completely intertwined with thinking on foreign affairs. This produces tensions, particularly between those wanting a better relationship with China, including many old Blairites, and those emphasising onshoring and security.

And the question hovering over all of this is what Labour would do about defence. Starmer wants defence procurement to be seen as a domestic economic issue. There is a growing internal lobby for the party to commit itself to raising defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP quickly. But the consequences for public spending on education, home affairs and local government would be serious; if you are looking for the first big row between Prime Minister Starmer and Chancellor Rachel Reeves, that might a good place to start.

To cope with this ominous agenda, the party finds itself with a leader relatively unblooded in foreign politics, although well versed in international human rights, and a shadow foreign secretary with good US contacts (including his friend Barack Obama) who did a wide range of government jobs under Blair and Gordon Brown, but never at the Foreign Office. Starmer and Lammy trust each other closely – they are political near-neighbours, and both worked at the Doughty Street legal chambers – but also know their foreign affairs team will need considerable strengthening.

It seems likely that David Miliband will be offered a major role. He has been reluctant to leave New York for family reasons, but the possibilities do not all involve London: perhaps Middle East envoy or a super ambassadorship. Meanwhile Valerie Amos, Cathy Ashton and Patricia Scotland, all in the Lords, are regarded as loyal and experienced players who will be needed back at the centre of government.

Counting Lammy himself, there may be a lot of senior black figures as a Labour foreign office looks out at the world. Given the near breakdown in relations between the UK and much of the Global South, that will be at the very least useful. Labour detests the Tory abolition of the Department for International Development (DFID). No decisions have been taken yet and it may be difficult to recreate the department quickly.

Starmer, meanwhile, is speaking regularly to Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff for a decade and a lead Good Friday negotiator. When I asked a senior Starmer aide recently, “Who is the Jonathan Powell of today?” I received a long pause and the answer: “Well, that would be… Jonathan Powell.”

Starmer’s main focus will be returning Britain to the position of global partner and player – a role that he feels has been surrendered by Rishi Sunak, as for instance in his very brief visit to the last Cop summit. Britain’s international reputation, Starmer feels, has taken a terrible battering to the point where it is affecting inward investment – yet again foreign policy and economic policy are fusing.

No senior foreign policy adviser has been appointed yet, but the process is moving, with Sue Gray, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, talking to Tom Fletcher, the unorthodox, popular former British ambassador in Lebanon. Fletcher was foreign policy adviser to Blair, Brown and David Cameron, who described him as “my support, sounding board and source of information about virtually every country on Earth”. Fletcher is currently principal of Hertford College Oxford and many want him back in Downing Street, but he is said not to want to return: instead, he is drawing up a shortlist of likely appointees.

Another possible source of continuity would be Professor John Bew, currently in No 10 having served Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. The son of the distinguished Northern Irish historian, Lord (Paul) Bew and a former New Statesman contributor, Bew is described as a social democrat by instinct who probably has the best international contact list in London; there are senior Labour figures would like him to be kept on.

Meanwhile Labour Together, under Josh Simons, has raised half a million pounds to hire five foreign-policy experts. The lead there is taken by Jon Garvie, an ex-Foreign Office man who worked with Peter Mandelson at his Global Counsel organisation and now operates as Lammy’s adviser. Labour Together is producing papers which, while not policy, will prepare the ground. They include one on the security implications of Reeves’s securonomics by Hamish Falconer, the Labour candidate for Lincoln and son of the former Lord Chancellor, and one on critical minerals and industrial strategy coming next month.

In all of this there’s an effort to bind together economics and foreign policy in dangerous times, a strategy distinct from both New Labour and the Conservatives. There are obvious tensions on the specifics of DFID, the timing of an increase in the defence budget and the correct approach to China. There are unresolved questions on staffing. But the “middle powers” will become central, while a country which once flung itself out into the world becomes one which focuses on alliances and security. If the proposition is that Britain in the mid-2020s must adopt the brace position who, honestly, could disagree?

[See also: Is Angela Rayner in danger?]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward