From Corbyn to Starmer - Labour's Approach to Foreign and Defence Policy
By Reg Pula, Associate Director at Rud Pedersen UK
As a foreign and defence policy aficionado, I have spent too much time talking up its value to (mostly Labour supporting) friends working on much more important policy briefs: health, education, the economy and pretty much everything else.
"To be honest, it’s not a top five issue on the doorstep", they often tell me.
And they’re right. It’s not. However, just because foreign and defence policy rarely play an important role in elections does not mean that they do not matter, I constantly retort.
Indeed, as someone with Kosovo Albanian heritage, I know that better than most. Without the UK and NATO’s support, Kosovo would not be free today. And my family and I may not be alive. We are a success story of British foreign policy.
More recently, the impacts of COVID-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine, both of which have required a global response, on our economy demonstrate the need to continue engaging abroad. Even then, while foreign and defence policy rarely win you an election, getting them wrong can nonetheless lose you one. That is something the Tories, unlike Labour, have always understood.
I have first-hand experience of this, having worked on foreign and defence policy during the Corbyn era of the Labour Party, first as an adviser to a Shadow Foreign Minister whose brief included half of the world and then as an adviser to the then Shadow Defence Secretary.
What ultimately defined Corbyn’s foreign policy failure is his naivety and worldview, informed by Motorcycle Diaries-esque experiences in Latin America. These made Corbyn’s foreign policy under Labour strikingly reliable – almost everything the US did was bad, and we must therefore be prepared to work with anyone that seeks to challenge them, no matter how unpalatable. Corbyn’s response to the Salisbury poisonings in 2018, where he failed to unequivocally condemn Russia, is clear evidence of this.
As most Brits do not share these experiences, they therefore do not share this worldview. Indeed, the British outlook on the US is broadly positive. And much more importantly, it is an outlook that Keir Starmer and his frontbench share.
Resetting Labour’s approach
Keir Starmer, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy, and Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey have all sought to rebuild the trust of the UK’s allies in the Labour Party, and ultimately Labour’s political credibility at home. They have maintained a strong line on Russia and have demonstrated their unshakeable support for both Ukraine and NATO.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Shadow International Trade Secretary, has sought to reinstate the importance of business interests, alongside the interests of workers and consumers, in developing trade policy.
Crucially, building on the work of the previous Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, now in the Shadow Levelling Up brief, Keir and his team have continued to reiterate the strong links between foreign and domestic policy. They understand that if we ignore what happens over there, it will come back to bite us over here.
A strong and effective foreign and defence policy offering is coming together – but challenges remain.
A vision for Britain’s role in the world
As it stands, the UK and the EU do not have a foreign and security policy agreement with the European Union. For the defence and security industries, this means that they are excluded from a growing set of European Union funds and projects.
In the longer term, a continued lack of access can contribute to making UK industry less competitive, while constraining the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office’s options. Though Labour have committed to a security agreement with the EU (indeed, David Lammy and John Healey are visiting Brussels to discuss these matters this week), the full extent of this is unclear.
Any agreement that does not consider defence industrial cooperation will be incomplete. At the same time, EU programmes have been overlapping with and duplicating NATO programmes. The UK’s involvement in EU programmes must be fully complementary with the NATO alliance. Pledging to an integrated ‘Make Brexit Work’ policy unit within No.10, to unravel these issues and more, may prove beneficial in government.
There is also a broader point about the UK’s role in the world in the post-Brexit era; can the UK continue to plausibly act as a “trans-Atlantic bridge”, in the words of Tony Blair, outside of the EU? These are questions Labour still need to answer.
Another major challenge is how the Labour Party will approach China. We live in an interdependent world where China, as the second largest global economy, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and a powerful state that seeks to reinterpret the existing liberal international order, cannot be ignored.
At the same time, its actions in Xingjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have been rightly deplored. Hedging – pursuing an awkward combination of balancing and engagement behaviours – may be the only plausible option at this stage.
The Labour Party have clearly been on a journey here – thanks to Starmer and his team – and that is contributing to its polling numbers.
To continue strengthening its credibility on foreign and security issues, it must now set out a fuller vision for Britain’s role in the world, rooted in domestic priorities but cognisant of geopolitical and economic realities.