Lisa Nandy, the new shadow foreign secretary and, until recently, a contender for the Labour leadership, is better known for her domestic policy positions than for her approach to international affairs. Throughout her time in parliament and particularly as a leadership contender, the MP for Wigan has been known for her views on British towns. An economic model based on city-led growth, says Nandy, led to decades of decline in towns across the UK, and that contributed to the feelings of powerlessness and frustration that led to the Brexit referendum result and to Labour’s 2019 election defeat. Her views on towns and buses became memes on social media during the Labour leadership campaign. Her foreign policy positions were less well known.
As shadow foreign secretary, Nandy, theoretically, takes on one of the most important briefs and shadows one of the great offices of state. In practice, the shadow foreign secretary typically defers to the party leader on big foreign policy decisions. The role is better viewed as a prominent spokesperson role, well suited to Nandy, who proved herself to be an able communicator during the leadership campaign.
But that doesn’t mean that Nandy’s foreign policy positions are less relevant. In appointing his shadow cabinet, Starmer’s approach has been to appoint individuals with whom he is closely aligned on the policy areas in question. Nandy’s previously stated positions on foreign policy are a strong indicator of the direction of travel for Labour under Starmer, and offer a clear sense of where Labour will diverge from the foreign policy of the Corbyn years.
A source close to Nandy says she was completely taken by surprise when Starmer appointed her as shadow foreign secretary, after briefings to the media that neither she nor her fellow leadership contender, Rebecca Long-Bailey, were to be given “big four” jobs in his shadow cabinet. Nandy’s team had spent the weeks before the result proposing roles to Starmer’s team whereby Nandy could continue to work on reconnecting with the country after the election defeat. With no expectations of one of the most prominent roles, their hopes were simply that she would be given a “core front bench role”, rather than something “down in the weeds”.
It is suggested by those close to Nandy that she was given the unexpected appointment as a result of her perceived ability to unite people and worldviews with inherent tensions, noting her position on Israel/Palestine.
Both a long-time campaigner for Palestinian rights and one of the strongest critics of antisemitism within the Labour party, it was a particular point of pride for Nandy and her team during the leadership contest that as the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine she received the Jewish Labour Movement’s nomination for leader, a fact that is said to have impressed Starmer. Nandy’s appointment can be read as further evidence of Starmer’s commitment to reaching out to the Jewish community.
Nandy is a strong advocate of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, pointing to her record in parliament on the issue during the leadership contest: “I and many colleagues fought and, with the support of Ed Miliband, won the right to recognise the state of Palestine [in parliament].”
“I have and always will support Palestinian rights,” she wrote in a statement, after endorsing pledges put forward by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.
“That’s why I oppose Trump’s ‘plan’, have campaigned against British business profiting from the OPTs [occupied Palestinian territories] and support any embargo on arms deals which violates human rights. I’m happy to back these PSC commitments,” she wrote.
“We cannot allow the continued selling of arms to Israel, the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, the blockade of Gaza and for Palestinian refugees to be denied their rights. I am committed to ensuring that Palestinian rights are protected and international law is respected.”
Nandy supports Palestinians’ right of return but does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
She is a firm defender of the state of Israel’s right to exist and described herself as a Zionist during hustings for the leadership. “That is the moral and the right thing to do,” she explained at the RSA. “There is a deep and a long and a painful history that has led to the founding of Israel and we should always speak up in its support.
“But also because if you want to resolve this issue for those Palestinian children who I met and gave my word to, seven years ago, that I would do everything I could to bring an end to this conflict, you have to stand up for the right of Israel to exist… The reason I have always stood up and defended a two-state solution is because that is the only solution. Labour must never be defeatist and accept that we pick a side. We don’t pick a side. We work together in the common and the national and the international interest in order to achieve peace for both.”
Nandy drew criticism from all sides of the Labour party for some of the above positions during the leadership campaign: some on the left of the party rejected her self-declared Zionism; others towards the right of the party argued that her signing of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign’s pledges undermined her commitment to recognising the right of the state of Israel to exist.
However, it is felt by team Starmer that Nandy’s position on this issue in particular proved her to be a “natural collaborator” during the leadership campaign: an approach that Starmer has decided should define the foreign policy ethos at the beginning of his leadership.
It is increasingly argued that the politics of the future will be fought on an axis of “open” versus “closed” rather than left versus right. Nandy spoke directly to this idea in a high-profile speech on internationalism at the RSA at the beginning of her leadership campaign. She made a passionate case for internationalism, a value that has underpinned all of her subsequent foreign policy interventions, and said that Labour would have to win the argument for post-Brexit Britain to be “a confident, open, internationalist country”, defending and taking a leading role in international institutions, “breathing new life” into them even if they are imperfect.
While internationalism is under threat, she argued, “as it has become associated with membership of the global liberal elite”, it represents a fundamental Labour value of “solidarity between nations”, underpinned by the understanding that wherever you are in the world and “whether you’re a victim of a flood, drought, or fire, it is the working classes who suffer most and suffer first”. The history of internationalism is, she argued, “the rich history of international solidarity of workers.”
She emphasised the need for an internationalist approach to Covid-19 in a second foreign policy speech, delivered virtually at Chatham House, after the lockdown began in the UK.
“I am making the case today that this is an essential part of our fight against coronavirus to go out and stand up for these values. For an internationalist world, for a transformed, more resilient, more compassionate, outward-looking, self-confident Britain. That is the way that we will defeat not only this crisis but others to come. This is a fight that we’ve got to win.”
Nandy has been unequivocal that Labour needs “to win the argument for ethical intervention”.
“It really saddens me that this last point is something that needs to be said in the Labour Party,” Nandy said in her Chatham House speech, before taking a swipe at the stated foreign policy positions of Richard Burgon and Clive Lewis during the leadership and deputy leadership contests.
“We’ve just been through a contest where a deputy leadership candidate pledged that Labour will hold a full ballot of members before we would take action in government to safeguard people’s lives, and where a leadership candidate wrote onto a pledge card that he would promise to ban ‘illegal wars’ .
“[That] consciously reopen[ed] old wounds about Iraq and by doing so ma[de] it harder to win the argument that in so many other instances intervention, whether it’s military, whether it’s diplomatic, whether it’s aid-related, mattered.
“We must never be a party, or a country, that is prepared to ignore the problems on our doorstep, and what coronavirus has shown, quite starkly, is that the world is now on our doorstep.”
Nandy was also clear during the contest that she is “not a pacifist”, adding that she would however “strive towards peace. Peace isn’t always achieved by taking the easy path and sometimes you have to stand up to be counted.” This will, again, feel like a change from the ethos of the Corbyn project.
Nandy has repeatedly cited Robin Cook’s famous speech on “ethical foreign policy” in 1997, when he was Labour’s Foreign Secretary, as a key influence on her thinking with regard to Britain’s place in the world.
Nandy was 21 and working as a housing caseworker for the Labour MP Neil Gerrard at the time of the war on Iraq. She marched against the war, and Gerrard was one of the few MPs to vote against it in the Commons.
She has spoken on several occasions about how “scarred” the Labour party has been by the legacy of the Iraq war, but has argued that “we do the world a disservice if we don’t recognise that there are times when you stand up and times when you don’t.”
“The legacy of the Iraq war still hangs over Labour party like a shadow,” she said in her RSA speech. “But before that disastrous decision to intervene in Iraq was the ethical foreign policy of Robin Cook and the life-saving intervention in Sierra Leone. We must now have the confidence to move forward, not to shy away from facing the mistakes, but understanding that Labour has always been the party of ambition and reform.”
Nandy, like the new Labour leader, voted against airstrikes in Syria in 2015, but had been among those in the shadow cabinet considering voting in favour. She said during the leadership contest that “there was a huge row about military intervention in Syria in Labour’s shadow cabinet and there were a number of us who felt that we had to give Cameron a hearing. There was a case for that intervention, however difficult and uncomfortable that is for a party that has been so scarred by the legacy of Iraq.”
She voted against military intervention because of “Cameron’s inability to make the case for it”. It was “the right thing” to target infrastructure “in order to disrupt those terrorist networks”, Nandy has said, but she did not think this was worth the risk of targeting civilian populations who would have been “turned against us and for the authoritarian regime as a consequence”.
“Do I regret that? I don’t know is the honest answer. I’ve wrestled with it a lot seeing what’s happened in Syria since.”
On the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, Nandy has expressed concern about the closure of the EU settlement scheme during the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as the closure of borders making it more difficult for aid to reach the Syrian people. As a Labour leadership contender she said too little has been done to put pressure on those governments who are pushing Syrian refugees back into danger after they cross the border into Syria’s neighbouring countries. On this, Nandy suggested it was important first for the UK to make sure that it is equally shouldering the responsibility to take care of refugees so as not to undermine its efforts to exert pressure on other countries.
Nandy said during the leadership contest that Labour had “failed on Russia” under Corbyn’s leadership. In the starkest moment of her RSA speech she said:
“Russia is a regime that discriminates against LBGT people. It demonises Muslims and other minorities and suppresses basic rights. It has invaded its neighbour and occupied a chunk of its sovereign territory. It has used chemical weapons on the streets of the UK and murdered a homeless person.
“It was completely wrong that our response to this was to cast doubt on what happened and call only for dialogue. At a crucial moment, we hesitated in condemning an authoritarian regime that supports Donald Trump, that invades its neighbours, that steals its country’s wealth, that interferes in elections in Europe and America, that attacks minority communities and then used chemical weapons on the streets of the UK.
We stood with the Russian government, and not with the people it oppresses, who suffer poverty and discrimination. We failed the test of solidarity.
And as a result, we let the Tories get away with their own shocking weakness on Putin’s Russia: suppressing the ISC report; failing to answer basic questions on their own funding by Russian oligarchs; letting the city of London become a paradise for corrupt money laundering. The Labour leadership failed on Russia. We must put this right.”
Nandy’s appointment to the foreign affairs brief signals a firm departure from the previous leadership’s widely criticised response to the Salisbury poisonings and a fresh approach to dealing with Russia.
When asked what her approach to the Trump administration would be as Labour leader, Nandy said that the idea of not engaging with Trump was “a nonsense” but that the best approach to working with the US under the “protectionist” leadership of Trump would be within the context of “the closest possible relationship with the European Union”.
“On everything from national security and on trade and jobs, our future has to lie with Europe.”
During the Labour leadership contest Nandy said she would not sign a US-UK trade deal if the US had not ratified the Paris agreement.
As above, Nandy has argued that the UK’s future lies in a close working relationship with its European neighbours. Unlike the new Labour leader, she did not support a second referendum and argued that Labour should unite behind a soft Brexit option with free movement. Sources suggest that Nandy’s “nuanced Brexit position” has already been a help to Starmer.
“It doesn’t particularly help him” to be seen criticising the government’s failure to extend the transition period, for example, and it is felt that Nandy voicing those criticisms is a better image for the party. It is worth noting however that Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is the minister responsible for shadowing Michael Gove and therefore for scrutiny of the negotiations of the future relationship with the EU.
Nandy was clear during a Q&A after her RSA speech that she opposes selling arms to Saudi Arabia due to its record on human rights.
Nandy condemned the assassination of Qasem Soleimani as “reckless” on the part of Donald Trump, and returned again to the values of internationalism in a piece for The Times in the aftermath:
“This is a critical moment for Britain to express its role on the post-Brexit global stage. Our response must be guided by protecting our national security and our core values of internationalism, human rights, and respect for the rule of law. We have a seat on the UN Security Council and, now more than ever, we must use it to demand de-escalation and urgent, serious diplomacy.”
Where does Nandy’s “towns” analysis fit into this foreign policy approach?
Although Nandy’s critique of city-led growth is typically applied within a UK context, she argued at Chatham House that this analysis applies in other countries across the world, from post-industrial towns outside Berlin that are starting to turn against the EU, to the disconnection from the levers of power felt within the rust belt of America.
She has spoken of the need to “get a grip on an economic model that hasn’t delivered for places outside of the major urban centres in every country in the world, because if we don’t do that we’re laying the ground for people that seek to divide us”.
As global inequalities grow, particularly with regard to the unequal distribution of the impact of the climate emergency, citizens in the UK and around the world “feel shut out of the levers of power, Nandy has argued. “This is an argument for international institutions that are currently under attack and Britain playing its part and strengthening those institutions, for making those institutions far more democratic and far more responsive than they have been in the past.”
The broad tone of Nandy’s approach to foreign affairs is clear from her multiple interventions on the subject during the leadership campaign and through her record in parliament: put simply, a firm internationalism. She takes on the brief as her opposite number covers temporarily for the Prime Minister, and as the world faces an unprecedented crisis. Under Starmer, her first steps in the role are understood to have been reaching out to sister parties across the world, building bridges and learning from other countries’ responses to the pandemic.
The nature of the foreign policy brief is such, however, that the challenges of the years to come may not have been foreseen yet. This, say colleagues, will be Nandy’s particular strength. She is a “conviction politician” through and through, they argue, with deeply considered positions on global issues and “a politician’s gut instinct”, well-placed to respond to international challenges as they arise.