The Labour leadership is preparing itself for the external challenges of the future with a suite of foreign policies endorsed at the National Policy Forum and outlined in speeches by David Lammy and John Healey.
However, we also need to nurture more informed thinking about foreign and security policy in the wider party. We often proudly proclaim our internationalism, but rarely discuss it in any depth. Conservative foreign policy events I have attended professionally sometimes show a more robust intellectual approach that better prepares their MPs and members in specific areas.
There are no easy answers to many questions. For example, how to provide relief to our Afghan and Iranian sisters being ruthlessly repressed. How to help Biden normalise relations between Saudi and Israel, at the expense of Iran and China, while discouraging Israel’s authoritarian turn and aiding Palestinians. How best to assist the Iraqi Kurds whose domestic divisions are being exploited by enemies to diminish their autonomy. How to win India and how to woo Africa. Other issues festering in the background could explode into conflict and cannot be ignored.
An official impact assessment about the cut in overseas aid spending shows that hundreds of thousands of women will suffer unsafe abortions and many will perish in pregnancy and childbirth. The assessment, published by Sarah Champion’s International Development Committee, will drive demands to restore aid spending to the UN target of 0.7% of national income and also demerging the previously separate foreign office and development departments. Re-establishing the two departments would cost valuable time, however, and it’s best to leave that alone for now but with a Cabinet minister for overseas aid.
Society has also been pulverised by huge external shocks such as Brexit, the pandemic, and war. Labour’s strong and principled support for Ukraine and Nato has largely overcome the lack of trustworthiness on foreign and security policy from the Corbyn years. But we must still win power by keeping supporters and attracting those who voted for others. Easy is not the word, and with the legacy of Brexit, easy certainly doesn’t define external policy.
Labour Party members are understandably impatient to reverse austerity measures, but we best assess the state of the economy before finalising priorities at the election next year. We should also exploit the potential of new technologies, as highlighted at the recent Future of Britain conference.
If, as I’ve mentioned before, Estonia can save 2% of its GDP through digital access to public services, imagine how such measures could reduce the problem of social democracy with little fiscal firepower in the lousy economy we may inherit from the Conservatives.
As a Brexiteer of the Bennite variant in the 1970s, I understand the arguments about sovereignty, although it is a diminishing asset in today’s world of large trading blocs and huge transnational challenges. What mystifies me is why the Conservatives spurn pragmatic dialogue and co-operation with the largest trading block on our doorstep. Why don’t we also stop dithering about subscribing to the vital Horizon research programme, and embrace strategic dialogue and summits with the EU on critical issues such as climate change, terrorism, and war?
The pointless hit to touring British bands, for instance, strikes the wrong chord. The Beatles, a spur to our global cultural importance, honed their craft in Hamburg. How many new pop combos are missing out and underpowering this major export earner and soft power multiplier? These artistes need help.
The leadership rightly seeks to eliminate as much trade and other friction as possible, through what David Lammy calls a ‘special relationship’, for which there is popular support. It falls to Labour to decisively resolve these issues.
There are many ifs coming. If and when Ukraine prevails and joins the EU, it becomes one of its largest members and that would profoundly change the EU.
Nato won’t stand still either. It is already stronger and would be further energised by the accession of a large country with a huge and battle-hardened army. But a peaceful and stable Russia doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. We need strong European defences and the UK has much to contribute to that. It becomes even more crucial if the US Republicans win next year. We need a Ukrainian victory, but Putin clearly aims to wait us out. A Labour Government would have to demonstrate strategic patience and keep convincing public opinion that we should stay the course for our own long-term interests as well as helping the Ukrainians.
Paul Mason, who ably navigates defence-speak, identifies good Conservative decisions such as backing defence industry capacity to replace munitions quickly. But he also identifies a drift that turned the government’s recent Defence Command Paper into a “nothingburger.” It also falls to Labour to take coherent and long-term decisions in government.
If Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz remain in power, and if we win power, we can then energise a strong progressive axis on security and more. That will perhaps help us to overcome the failings of the botched Brexit deal. Whether that means rejoining is a question for another day. It is only when we win power that we can influence the dynamics of foreign policy and alliances.
There is a comfort zone of using “Tory” as the ultimate swear word, as if opposing the Conservatives defines us, rather than us seeking to be the best social democrats. We can oppose Conservative measures without merely mocking those with a different philosophy or kidding ourselves that we have a monopoly on morality. In government, we will need to create bipartisan consensus on some external policy issues that entail long term commitments.
Nick Forbes reminds us of public opinion on foreign policy issues. People know we are compassionate – heart in the right place and all that – but worry about our economic prudence, though Liz Truss memorably took the biscuit on that one.
All that stresses the need to be compassionate and canny in combining values and interests. If we disrespect dissent and open discussion on these difficult questions we may miss decent and hard-headed answers to many tough dilemmas in a harsh new world.
This is the eighth 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, Is Labour’s foreign policy ready for the tough test of government?