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12 June 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 5:43am

“Let’s build coalitions of the willing“: Nandy sets out Labour’s post-Covid foreign policy

The shadow foreign secretary indicated a major departure from the foreign policy agenda of the Corbyn years in her address at Spotlight’s Global Policy Forum. 

By Jonny Ball

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy signalled a future Labour government would be more open to making foreign interventions during her keynote address on Friday (12 June) at Spotlight’s Global Policy Forum on remaking the world after coronavirus, also stating that “security and stability” should be the focus of British foreign policy. 

“We must not give up on Syria, the Yemen, or other parts of the world seeing conflict,” she said. “If our existing institutions cannot unite before a lead negotiator let’s build coalitions of the willing and redouble our efforts to solve those crises.” The term “Coalition of the Willing” was used by the administration of George W Bush to describe countries that politically or militarily supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

[You can still watch the exclusive interviews and panel discussions from the Global Policy Forum. Click here to register for access]

After her speech at the online conference, the former Labour leadership contender revealed in an interview with Stephen Bush that “one of the reasons Keir [Starmer] was keen that I took on the [shadow foreign secretary] role was that he had seen a Royal Society of Arts (RSA) speech I had given during the leadership election”. In the speech, Nandy made the case for a more robust foreign policy, unencumbered by the memories and mistakes of Iraq. “The legacy of the Iraq War still hangs over the Labour Party like a shadow,” she told the RSA. “But before that disastrous decision to intervene 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.” In March, Nandy wrote on LabourList that the party had to “win the argument for ethical intervention”.

During the years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the MP for Wigan was an outspoken critic of the perceived weakness of the leadership in response to the Skripal case, when a former Russian military intelligence officer and UK double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury in March 2018. They survived but the targeted assassination attempt accidentally killed a homeless person who later picked up the container used in the attack, according to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons.

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“There hasn’t been a proper global response to Russian aggression,” Nandy told Stephen Bush. “We’ve seen that in the UK with Skripal and the use of chemical agents on British soil, but across the world we’ve also seen interference in elections, cyber attacks, the exacerbation of the refugee crisis that has emboldened populist parties across Europe that are very pro-Putin. That’s a threat we have to take seriously.”

On the need for global coordination in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Nandy stressed the need for international efforts to solve the truly global problems of the day, from pandemics to environmental breakdown. “The UK has to change course,” she told Policy Forum delegates. “From a reputation we’ve earned in recent years as an alliance breaker, we have to become an alliance maker.”

The shadow foreign secretary also laid out plans to build “a greater level of strategic independence” from China: “From Huawei to Hinkley Point our national security can’t be compromised in the search for growth and trade.”

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the chorus of voices questioning China’s role in the UK’s critical national infrastructure projects has grown louder. In March, Boris Johnson gave the green light to Chinese tech giant Huawei to help build the UK’s 5G network.

“We cannot allow poorer countries or failing companies to see China as their only option,” Nandy said, echoing fears that Chinese state-owned enterprises would take advantage of coronavirus-related bankruptcies to launch takeover bids in the UK. The Belt and Road strategy is a major geopolitical project for the Chinese state, expanding its economic reach by spending vast amounts of money on infrastructure and investment in trade and industry across the developing world.

However, Nandy also made clear that any future relationship with China would be based on engagement, not confrontation. “We have to have a constructive engagement with the Chinese government… From climate change to pandemics… there is no global challenge that can be solved without them.”

[You can still watch the exclusive interviews and panel discussions from the Global Policy Forum. Click here to register for access]