Is Labour’s foreign policy ready for the tough test of government?

Tony Benn divided politicians into the Signposts and the Weathercocks. The Signpost constantly says: “This is the way we should go” while “the Weathercock hasn’t got an opinion until they’ve looked at the polls, talked to the focus groups, discussed it with the spin doctors.”

This grossly caricatures the dilemmas of winning power in a parliamentary democracy through judging how to implement our values in circumstances we haven’t chosen. This is even tougher in foreign policy where there are obviously many more variables – about 200 countries, multilateral bodies, non-state actors, and diasporas, for instance. Small voting shifts in Wisconsin or Walsall can quickly alter the global political map.

Look at the Brexit referendum, where a more engaged Labour leader could probably have mobilised the 635,000 votes (out of 33 million) needed for a simple majority for staying. It’s done and we are lumbered. This reminds me of the film, Sliding Doors where random decisions can entirely change fates.

Profound challenges also suddenly emerge and can require rapid reactions. The swift decision to protect Iraqi Kurdistan from genocide in 1991 had the fair wind of public opinion and bipartisanship behind it. Similar humanitarian crises ahead may not command such consent but will require immediate action in the dead of the night where decisions depend on the ideological instincts of the few, not the many. In the bad old days, I worried that a Corbyn premiership’s instincts could sideline NATO and destroy its credibility in the event, for example, of Russia attacking Estonia. It seems my fears weren’t unfounded.

Wayne David MP recently outlined how the Corbyn team reacted to Theresa May deploying British troops to Estonia in January 2017. Wayne writes that the leader’s spokesperson refused to give Corbyn’s support. Wayne and Nia Griffith, Labour’s then Shadow Defence Secretary rightly insisted that Labour should support the decision. Corbyn backed down but “It was pretty clear, though, that Corbyn was prepared to give only lip service to Britain’s membership of NATO.”

Keir Starmer’s leadership has rightly reinstated unambiguous support for NATO and nuclear deterrence, which party members largely accept. But we need to convincingly understand and own security issues.

Irresponsibility on this was starkly exposed on the American left after the Al Qaeda attacks on America in 2001. The following year at the Socialist Scholars’ conference, in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero, I witnessed the “lite Left” and hardliners such as Tariq Ali furiously disputing the responses to the attacks.

One of the participants was the American sociologist Michael Walzer whose influential essay “Can There Be a Decent Left?” is still relevant. Walzer scorned the “rag-tag Marxism” that turns “world politics into a cheap melodrama, with all the villains dressed to look the part and one villain larger than life” rather than advocating secular enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government.

Walzer concluded that “What was necessary after September 11, and what is necessary now, is an engagement with our fellow citizens that recognizes the fellowship. We can be as critical as we like, but these are people whose fate we share; we are responsible for their safety as they are for ours, and our politics has to reflect that mutual responsibility. When they are attacked, so are we; and we should join willingly and constructively in debates about how to defend the country. Once again: we should act as if we won’t always be powerless.”

Over here, I worry about the weight of easy and lazy radicalism about faraway places and the realities of our own security. Just as we need to be rooted at home we need grounding on other countries. Walzer’s 2018 book, A Foreign Policy for the Left, is a magisterial “post-Marxist account of a more nuanced politics and a more open-ended search for allies”. He cites Ignazio Silone’s phrase about the “the choice of comrades” to guide our thinking.

Our sister parties are rightly the first port of call but they may never gain power. We should also engage with organisations that aren’t social democratic but are like-minded, or not at all so, and with which we may have geopolitical rather than ideological affinity. We cannot, however, simply franchise out our thinking and avoid the hard graft of analysis.

When I studied International Relations in the 1970s, we were often mocked for only needing to read the papers but any survey of the global scene, as this column tries to do, needs to distinguish the signal from the noise in the hope of encouraging wider fluency in speaking foreign policy. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can hinder that, through deep-fake images and interviews that endanger democracy. Disinformation scatters so many theories that it becomes difficult to know what is going on. We best know instantly what is AI generated and many propose some form of watermark to do that.

However, Russia-Watcher Mark Galeotti writes that “Hard-pressed analysts, scarcely able to cope with the sheer amount of information available to them, can also use AI to look for correlations, hunt out the anomalies that merit human attention or even backtrack sources”.

But AI is much bigger than this. Tony Blair and William Hague write that AI is “emerging as a transformative technology that has the potential to radically change economic models, the way businesses are organised and, in turn, how our society functions. It stands poised to transform every industry from education, health care and transport to space exploration and beyond.”

A Labour government can help safely develop and govern AI. If it isn’t a deadly danger to humanity, and that’s one hell of an if, it can massively save time and money through streamlining health care and perhaps quickly finding cures for diseases. And much more.

Such savings are vital. After all, we may take power with services that demographic change is making dearer and a rancid and a costly Conservative economic inheritance that restricts our fiscal room for manoeuvre. We need resources for reforming and recuperating our services and economic sectors but also for more derisking, defence, deterrence, and decarbornisation in a major reset of a world worsened by populism, pandemics, war, and climate change.

We need to prepare for the rough and the smooth in a year or so. You cannot fatten the foreign policy pig on market day. And some of the likely issues could decisively determine the fate of our party and country. We need signposts and weathercocks to navigate this perilous journey.


This is the seventh in a series of columns covering Labour’s foreign policy challenges. The author, Gary Kent, studied International Relations, has been a Labour member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987 where he has focused on Anglo/Irish and Anglo/Kurdish relations. He writes in a personal capacity. 

If you enjoyed this piece, check out Gary’s previous piece, Estonian Theses on European Security