Reconnected and Reset: Labour’s Foreign Policy in Principle and Practice

In both a major speech to Chatham House and a pamphlet for the Fabians Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy set out his vision for foreign policy under a Labour Government. Summarised as ‘Britain Reconnected’ he set out a vision for a country that rejoins the international community as an influential player after years of slow decline under the conservatives.

Of course, from opposition, foreign policy is a policy area which is hard to achieve anything substantive on. But since setting out his vision Lammy, and Labour Leader Keir Starmer have made moves which show what a Labour strategy might look like in practice – and some of the challenges it poses.


Reconnecting with political cousins: Brazil

This week, David Lammy is on a five-day visit to Brazil. Already Latin America’s largest economy, Brazil is forecast to become the 5th largest economy in the world by 2050. No British Prime Minister has visited while the Conservatives have been in power.

Lammy’s trip includes talks on increased trade, cooperation on critical minerals and Brazilian’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council and OECD. The new government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, widely known simply as ‘Lula’ who leads the left-wing Workers’ Party, is intent on growing the economy and is increasingly assertive on the international stage.

Lula’s agenda aligns with Labour’s in many respects, particularly on environmental matters, with symmetry between Lula’s Growth Acceleration Programme, an ambitious $350bn public spending package with a significant share devoted to the ‘ecological transition’ and Labour’s £28bn a year for it’s Green New Deal.

But, despite the promising economic picture and its commitment to the green agenda, Brazil accounted for just 0.5% of total UK trade in 2022. Meanwhile, in 2019 the EU signed a deal with the Mercosur countries – Brazil but also Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – which is awaiting ratification. Ironing out the final details to gain improved access to European markets would represent a far greater benefit to Brazil (and the rest of Mercosur) than a bilateral deal with the UK.

And while Brazil’s leftists are far more palatable to Labour, and European leaders, than the far-right Jair Bolsonaro whom they replaced – they do not share the same perspective on key policy areas and world events. The biggest sticking point is the war in Ukraine, where Lula’s Brazil is ‘neutral’, hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergi Lavrov in April, buying record amounts of Russian fuel and making bizarre comments such as Lula’s claim that Zelensky is ‘as responsible as Putin’ for the war.

Lammy is a fierce advocate for the government in Kyiv and Ukraine’s victory in the war. The fact that he will be having to negotiate this difference of perspectives as he attempts to reconnect with Brazilian leaders this week is a reminder that reconnection, while a positive sentiment is a practical challenge, even where many of the right conditions exist.


Resetting strained relationships: India

Meanwhile, after a turbulent few years, Keir Starmer has pledged to reset the relationship between Labour and the Indian government of Narendra Modi. Unlike Lula, Modi and his BJP share no traditions with the British left being, essentially, right-wing Hindu nationalists.

But also, unlike Brazil, Britain has deep connections with India and Labour policy on India is noted both by those of Indian descent in Britain and commentators in India itself. We saw this clearly during the Corbyn years when a motion on Kashmir unanimously passed at the 2019 Labour Conference provoked a minor diplomatic incident.

Like Brazil, India is forecast to become a dominant economic force, overtaking the United States as the second-largest economy behind China by 2050. So, for both domestic and trade reasons, Labour must answer the difficult question of how it would seek to collaborate with India under the leadership of Modi who it should also be noted is maintaining and expanding trade relations with Moscow.

Starmer has stated that UK foreign policy under his leadership would ‘cast aside the entitlement of history’ and would look to the future rather than the past. He has specifically stated that a “strategic partnership with India” will be key to his Labour government.

While Modi’s leadership is one which should concern the Party, in government it knows it cannot ignore the importance of India in tackling Labour’s agenda surrounding the climate, security and prosperity. Concessions will have to be made, and Starmer’s statement that “Kashmir is a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve peacefully” is a sign of how Labour will take a pragmatic approach to resetting important relationships.


Reconnection and a new global landscape

Reconnection and re-engagement will be difficult. It will often require a reset in relations that may require Labour to shift its position on issues that are important to it.

But it is vital, and we should take heart, that Labour can see the importance of these economies far from our shores which are crucial to realising our policy ambitions on climate change, isolating Russia, and building our mutual prosperity.

Understandably Labour foreign policy discussions often focus elsewhere on seemingly more pressing issues, such as the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. Or addressing China and defining Britain’s relationship with what is projected to be the largest economy by GDP in the world by 2030. However, recent cracks have appeared in the foundations of the Chinese economy. A brewing property crisis has prompted fears of a wider economic slowdown[7]. These cracks, while on their own not enough to justify any disengagement from the China debate, underline to potential policymakers the need for a potential Labour government to be proactively engaging some of the next great economic powers, Brazil and India.

For more on foreign policy see The internationalisation of domestic policy.