Labour and the wider-world: The party’s approach to foreign policy

Jonathan Davis

by Jonathan Davis

Key Points:

  1. Remaking Labour’s Foreign Policy: Building bridges
  2. The Russia Factor
  3. Shaping Labour’s Foreign Policy
  4. A new approach to Europe
  5. A New Foreign Policy Mission Statement

1. Remaking Labour’s Foreign Policy: Building bridges

When the Labour Party formed its first government in 1924, dealing with Russia (in its Soviet guise) was high on the agenda, forging a new relationship with Europe after the First World War was an urgent necessity, and issues in the Middle East after the end of the Ottoman Empire needed careful consideration. One hundred years on, if Labour wins the general election on 4 July, the government led by Keir Starmer will find that it again needs a coherent foreign policy to deal with Russia, Europe, and the Middle East.xxxix

But a Labour government will also have to repair Britain’s reputation around the world, as this has been greatly damaged in the last few years, not only by Brexit, but also by the Conservative government’s continued attacks on international law and bodies such as the ECHR. The good news for Keir Starmer is that if he does become prime minister next month, he’ll have an early opportunity to meet with other world leaders and set Labour’s foreign policy stall out at the NATO summit in Washington on 11 July.

Labour’s commitment to NATO came into question when Jeremy Corbyn led the party, but Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has often reaffirmed Labour’s support for it. For example, at last year’s party conference, he declared that ‘Labour values do not stop at the English Channel. We are the party of internationalism. The party of Attlee and Bevin, NATO and the United Nations’. This rallying cry to conference was not only a reminder that Labour has played a central role in shaping the world in the past, but also that it would look to do so again.

There is one aspect of foreign policy from the last Labour government that still looms large in the public conscience, and that is Iraq. Lammy, who is likely to be the next Foreign Secretary, voted for the war, justifying his decision on the grounds that he represented the biggest Kurdish population in Britain who ‘had very strong views about Saddam Hussein because he’d gassed them’ and ‘they were very keen for me to support Tony Blair’. But he also said that had he known then what he learned about Weapons of Mass Destruction and ‘the way that we did not prepare properly for life after the military action, then of course I wouldn’t have supported the endeavour.’ But Labour will need to convince people that it has learned the lessons of Iraq, and it will be tested on the Middle East as it is faced with the tragedy of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.

David Lammy

Image: David Lammy speaking at Policy Exchange 2015.jpg (cropped). Original image by Policy Exchange, available on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

2. The Russia Factor

Russia will be the other, most immediate, issue to be dealt with upon coming to power. For much of the twentieth century, Labour suffered from the success of the Conservatives and the pro-Tory media that painted it a Soviet shade of red, from the revolution through to the end of the Cold War. This damned Labour to decades of being denounced as a brother of Bolshevism or a Soviet stooge. Today, however, the Conservatives are the ones with embarrassing links to Moscow. Problems with Russia began long before Putin’s war against Ukraine, with Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s report (2020) noting that Britain welcomed Russian oligarchs ‘with open arms’ and allowed ‘illicit finance’ to be ‘recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’. The UK ‘welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth’. This money has been used to build influence ‘across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money’ meaning that ‘Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’’.

Labour’s Russia policy naturally supports Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s fight to defend Ukraine’s right to exist and to be a sovereign nation. And if Russia is defeated, it is here that a Labour government should look to do two things. The first is to play an active role in ensuring that Putin is brought to justice and stands trial for war crimes. The second will be more difficult, but Labour should temper any jubilation if Putin is tried. David Lammy would be wise to lead the international community in ensuring that there is no triumphalism that could alienate the Russian people again. This was a cause of Russians’ distrust of the West in the 1990s as the post-Cold War world was constructed. Russians’ wounded pride combined with Yeltsin’s economic and political chaos to create an environment where Putin could establish an anti-West narrative. Lammy should advise against kicking a once-again wounded Russia, and instead work to bring a post-Putin Russia back in from the cold, albeit without favours being extended to the oligarchs. Such an approach will take time, and the security services will still need to guard against things like Russian cyber-attacks, but a change in rhetoric could help begin to reset east-west relations.

3. Shaping Labour’s Foreign Policy

How Labour deals with Russia could also bring into play wider issues that will shape its approach to foreign policy, as at some point Labour will have to consider the ‘rules-based order’ that Lammy spoke about in his Fabian speech earlier this year. Here he said that ‘Internationally, times are bleak’ as there is ‘the increasing threat of military force, the indifference to human rights, and the impotence of the rules-based order’.

The question of what this ‘rules-based order’ actually is, and whether it has primacy over international law, is more than just a theoretical question. It could become more important to global affairs if China and Russia formed their own ‘rules-based order’. It is already relevant with regards to the discussions around the correct approach to adopt over the Israel-Palestine catastrophe, not least because Lammy has agreed with the ICC over its issuing of an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as leading Hamas figures. However, the US’s Ambassador to Britain, Jane Hartley, suggests that there is a difference between Lammy and Starmer who is ‘pretty consistent with what the U.S. policy is’. This saw Biden denounce the ICC’s issuing of arrest warrants as ‘outrageous’. With talks of a ceasefire though, this probably will change again.

Starmer will be keen to stay on side with the Biden Administration and will look to work closely with the US (ideally without Donald Trump in the White House). However, the ‘rules-based order’ has been seen as something that favours Washington and its supporters, and unless there is clarity on this, it could cause problems down the line. The 2024 Labour manifesto has at least stated that ‘Labour values international law because of the security it brings’, and it has promised that Britain will ‘unequivocally remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights’.

Starmer and Lammy obviously share an approach to foreign policy and international relations though, and an insight into Lammy’s worldview can be found in his understanding of ‘Progressive realism’. He told George Eaton of the New Statesman that ‘progressive realism’ is:

"…very alive to the balance of power as a question and to the relative weight of international players. But typically its practitioners have only used it to accumulate power for power’s sake, like Henry Kissinger, for example. Where progressive realism is different is that you’re using that philosophy in order to put your advantage behind progressive causes such as the international rule of law and climate diplomacy."

Eaton notes that this line ‘echoes that of Starmer himself: a human rights lawyer who pursued progressive ends and came to see the value of realist means.’ Lammy also said that this approach ‘takes the world as it is, not as you would wish it to be’, a view that shares a central point made in the last LHRU report, on Labour Renewal, as Rohan McWilliam called for ‘Engagement with Society as it is – not as the left wants it to be’.

So, as with Starmer’s statements about a mission-led government, Lammy as Foreign Secretary could establish a pragmatic, mission-led foreign policy.xl And if Lisa Nandy remains in charge of International Development, as Minister of State for Development and Africa, then an ethical foreign policy, as outlined by Robin Cook in 1997, may again be part of Labour’s programme. Indeed, when she was Shadow Foreign Secretary, Nandy said that ‘Labour has always had a very, very strong commitment to ethical foreign policy, and that is a moral commitment that I’m determined we will renew.’

If this is the direction of travel of Labour’s foreign policy though, the ethical angle will need to be explained as Lammy will be meeting with world leaders who are deeply unethical. But pushing ethical and progressive policies will mean that diplomacy and co-operation will have to be extended beyond Britain’s natural allies.

4. A new approach to Europe

The question of allies brings us to Europe. The 2024 Labour manifesto states that ‘Britain will stay outside of the EU’. The well-worn party phrase ‘we must make Brexit work’, together with promises not to return to the single market or customs union, or to reintroduce freedom of movement, all follow. But there is also talk of resetting the relationship between the UK and the EU to ‘deepen ties with our European friends, neighbours and allies’ and a promise to rethink other aspects of Brexit regarding border checks and touring artists.

The process of bridging the divide has already begun with David Lammy courting the French government both prior to and during the recent D-Day commemorations. Much more, of course, will need to follow, but this is a positive – and clever – start.

Labour’s European policy is unsurprising as Starmer has never given any reason to think that a major policy change towards the EU was on the cards. At some point in the next parliament though, a Labour government may find that it needs a different approach if it turns out that Brexit can’t be made to work. Opinion polls continuously show that the mood has shifted, and a majority of people think that Brexit was a mistake, and that Britain should rejoin the EU. And if the more pro-EU Liberal Democrats return a high number of MPs, then Labour could take this as support for moving further away from the 2016 referendum result. It could also make a pragmatic case for re-entry to the single market or the customs union based on the dire state of the economy and the urgent need for extra funding for public services. All unlikely at this point of course, but before 23 June 2016, so was Brexit.xli

5. A New Foreign Policy Mission Statement

If Labour does form a new government in July, it will seek to restore Britain’s role of being a reliable partner who can offer wise counsel in global matters. It will also look to engage with the international community in a positive way and undo some of the harm the Conservatives have done to Britain’s reputation abroad. This will take time, but Labour will, no doubt, also look to use Britain’s soft power via its cultural attractions and globally known institutions to make the Conservatives’ slogan of ‘Global Britain’ more than just an empty phrase. While a Blair-era ‘Cool Britania’ movement may not quite be Starmer’s style, resetting Britain’s international relations, so damaged by the Conservatives, will be a main priority.

It would be helpful if, soon after coming to power, David Lammy set out his main aims and objectives, just as Robin Cook did. Cook’s ‘New Mission Statement for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’ established that the Labour government did not ‘accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business’. Labour’s foreign policy ‘must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves’. This sounds similar to the mood established by Starmer and Lammy.

The 2024 world is a very different place compared to the world of 1990s. But instability was a part of the construction of the post-Cold War world order, and it is a part of today’s reality. Cook talked about the late 1990s as being ‘an age of internationalism’, and this term carries with it deep and, at times sentimental, meaning for the Labour Movement. Cook could have called it an age of globalisation and focussed more on neoliberalism, consumerism, and corporate power. But choosing Internationalism instead was a recognition that there was more to global politics than individualism, wealth, and power. He stated that ‘We live in a world in which nation states are interdependent. In that modern world foreign policy is not divorced from domestic policy but a central part of any political programme.’

David Lammy has also highlighted Labour’s Internationalism, and while there will be disagreements over what that means today, it is true that Internationalism for Labour has always been more than just having an interest in foreign affairs or global issues, in trade opportunities or establishing positive diplomatic relations. It’s been about trying to make a positive difference to other parts of the world that would help further the cause of progressive politics. Labour governments have sought to be included in, and contribute to, world politics, government, and society, and to accept that the world is made up of interdependent states rather than individualistic nations.

This will be the starting point for Labour’s foreign policy if it wins next month, but David Lammy can also draw on the party’s Internationalist principles and traditions to guide him as he establishes what progressive realism means both in theory and in practice.



xxxix For more on Labour’s foreign policy, see Paul Corthorn and Jonathan Davis (eds.) The British Labour Party and the Wider World Domestic Politics, Internationalism and Foreign Policy, (London, I. B Taurus, 2008), John Callaghan, The Labour Party and Foreign Policy: A History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007) and Rhiannon Vickers, The Labour Party and the World, volume 1: The evolution of Labour's foreign policy, 1900–51 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), and The Labour Party and the World, volume 2: Labour's foreign policy since 1951, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).

xl David Lammy sets out further what ‘Progressive Realism’ means in ‘Labour’s foreign policy will be realistic about us as a nation, not nostalgic about what we used to be’, The Guardian, 17 April 2024.

xli For a history of the first referendum on Europe see Robert Saunders, Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).