Does Labour have a foreign policy?

Robin Cook's Moralpolitik should motivate Labour's foreign policy

Denis MacShane finds little evidence in the affirmative

What is Labour foreign policy? Since Sir Keir Starmer became leader, the answer has been “we would do things differently”. Simply being non-Johnson (and, now, non-Truss) has been enough for Labour’s rare sorties into international policy.

That era is now over. We will soon have (another) new prime minister, and the time will soon arrive when Labour will need to have a serious international policy offer to put to the British people.

This is easier said than done. In 2016, the Fabians set up an international policy network. Its last post was 2020. The Labour Foreign Policy Group, set up by London activists, has produced one paper on China advocating the eternal wish list of co-operation and criticism. This doesn’t take account of the flight from China of British firms as President Xi seems intent on full dictatorship mode with a massive military build-up, torture of Uyghurs, a violation of the 1997 treaty on Hong Kong, and wanting to pull 23 million Chinese enjoying full democratic rights in Taiwan into a Chinese gulag.

Another new outfit is the British Foreign Policy Group. It seeks to promote “Global Britain”, the official Boris Johnson anti-European latter day isolationism. One of its leading luminaries is Gisela Stuart, who has sided with ultra-nationalists and rightist anti-Europeans since 2016 and was duly rewarded with a peerage by Boris Johnson.

There are not many lessons from the past. In the 1930s, Labour supported the policy of non-intervention in Spain, leaving the Democratic Republic without military and political support against Franco’s fascist uprising, supported by Italian arms and Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion.Yes, Labour finally wised up to the threat of German nationalism, but only after 1945. Meanwhile, Attlee exported white settlers from Britain to boost the white colonial presence in Africa and Asia.

Worse was Labour’s refusal in 1950 to join in any discussion with continental states on partnership to place steel and coal industries under joint control, with a strong role for trade unions and MPs from national parliaments.

Labour got Europe badly wrong in the 1950s and 1960s, had a short-lived truce with the 1975 referendum, and then, by 1983, had moved into full anti-European mode with a Brexit promise in the 1983 election manifesto.

Labour turned Europe as an issue against the Tories after 1992 with a pledge to sign the EU Social Charter and work fully as a European partner. Robin Cook used his rhetoric as Labour shadow foreign secretary to demolish Tory isolationism.

The problem for Labour in devising foreign policy in opposition is the classic divide between Realpolitik and Moralpolitik – the divide between promoting British interests, mainly economic, and Britain’s desire to be a force for good in the world. Realpolitik imposes a search for strong allies, and since the rupture with Europe, there is only one – the USA – which requires accepting a subordinate, almost vassal status, purchasing their arms and supporting most US foreign policy. Realpolitik also closes British eyes to human rights abuses in authoritarian or barely democratic countries where the UK makes much money, like China, or hopes to make much money, like India.

Moralpolitik took shape in the creation of the Department for International Development, and it is a welcome pledge from Starmer that Labour will return to an independent DfID, with its specialised knowledge on how to make aid work. Moralpolitik was Robin Cook’s creation of the International Criminal Court and getting the FCO to publish an annual report on human rights.

Moralpolitik now might be an international campaign for the abolition of the death penalty – starting with the Commonwealth, where the majority of states have hanging as the ultimate punishment, and several have executed people in recent years, with Pakistan sanctioning the state killing of 100 prisoners.

Labour could look at strengthening the International Labour Organization by joining in a campaign for a social clause in all trade agreements. Most pay lip service to human rights, but so much of what we buy in supermarkets, on high streets or have delivered by Amazon is made under conditions of quasi-slave labour.

Labour is home to any number of single issue campaigns – on Palestine, Kurds, Chagossians, British Kashmiris who think India Hinduvata ideology is hostile to them and to Islam (it is), and British Indians who just wish Kashmir would stop moaning and stop sponsoring terrorism. A Labour foreign secretary will have to deal with these hot issues for the many communities of British citizens with links to regions of the world where such identity questions are difficult to handle.

But the big problem remains our relationship with Europe, the one region in the world where states have combined to outlaw the death penalty, support women and LGBTQIA+ rights, and uphold trade union rights. Even if fewer workers are joining unions, EU law mandates worker consultation and works councils managed by trade unions.

All these rights have disappeared, not as a result of the 2016 plebiscite – which, it is worth recalling, was accepted in two general elections in 2017 and 2019. Soon after the 2016 vote, Boris Johnson wrote that the UK would stay in the Single Market and Customs Union and the right of British people to travel, work or settle in Europe would not be affected. Many senior Tory MPs campaigning for Leave in 2016 made similar pledges.

When Labour’s leadership says Brexit cannot be challenged, do they mean the 2016 version (Single Market/Customs Union and travelling freely in Europe) or the 2022 version, which is seeing growth and investment slump? Sectors from farming to fishing to young mothers who can no longer have au pairs report on the damage Brexit is causing.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, once the most powerful orator on platforms in Trafalgar Square denouncing Brexit, has had to toe the line laid down by the leader’s office. He has tried to square the circle arguing in a June speech that:

“A Labour government would seek an agri-food agreement to improve the flow of food and help our exporters. We would seek regulatory equivalence for financial service and strengthen mutual recognition of professional qualification. We would also aim to maintain Britain’s data adequacy status, so that our data protection rules would continue to be deemed equivalent to those in the EU. We would negotiate an improved long-term deal for UK hauliers to ease the supply chain problems that are holding us back. We would secure association to the Horizon funding programme, so we restore our leading role in scientific collaboration. And [we would] restore visa-free touring for musicians.”

These are noble aims, though all British cultural workers, artists, actors, filmmakers and so on (not just musicians) have lost their access to participate in European arts festivals thanks to the ultra-hard Brexit imposed by Theresa May and Boris Johnson. But, either individually or taken together, Lammy’s wish list is a demand for a partial return to the Single Market and freedom of movement, which have been categorically ruled out by the present Labour leadership.

Foreign policy often requires doing the splits or facing two different ways simultaneously. But voters are not dumb. The worry for Labour should be that its new line of an unambiguous rejection of even something like the relationship non-EU nations like Switzerland or Norway enjoy with their neighbours (given polls show a majority believing Brexit to be a mistake) could cost Labour its hopes of winning a majority.

The Tories will want  the next election to be a refight of 2016. Labour must avoid this trap. “Make Brexit Work” briefly emerged as a slogan to sum up Labour’s foreign policy line on Europe. It was ridiculed and quietly dropped.

Labour tacticians are right to avoid having the party branded as one that rejected the referendum on 2016. But equally, Labour must find new language on Europe that does not sound identical to the Europhobes holding all top positions in the Tory government.

There is a big constituency of Brits who want to see a better world, however that may be defined. Is Labour speaking for them? Not yet. In 1964 and 1997, Labour had an imaginative offer on foreign policy. In 1964, Wilson committed to a cabinet rank minister who would campaign for nuclear disarmament and banned arms sales to apartheid South Africa. In 1997, Labour set up DfID and reversed Tory appeasement of the Serb genocidist Slobodan Milosevic.

In 2023 or 2024, what will Labour’s foreign policy offer be?

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