Question 5: Is there such a thing as a distinctive Labour foreign policy?


  • 16 answered 'yes'
  • 18 answered 'no'


Many responded that foreign policy was frequently bipartisan so it is difficult to talk about a distinctive Labour foreign policy. Foreign policy has, however, been the source of Labour divisions from the First World War all the way up to the Gaza crisis.

Jonathan Davis (Anglia Ruskin) suggests that Labour has always been guided by principles of internationalism and the desire to make the world as a whole 'safer and fairer'. This ambition has always been viewed as integral to socialism. There was thus an ethical dimension to Ramsay MacDonald’s foreign policy in the 1920s. Decolonisation occurred under different administrations (Labour and Conservative) but was shaped in part at least by left wing critiques of empire which were of long standing. The party regards itself as having a humanitarian mission which has been reflected in its commitment to international development leading up to Gordon Brown helping to cancel the debt for many third world countries.

Labour helped found NATO and has been broadly Atlanticist in orientation, offering a bridge between the US and Europe. Since the 1980s the party has broadly been pro-European which contrasts with the Conservative Party. In opposition Labour has favoured unilateral nuclear disarmament (under Michael Foot and the early part of Neil Kinnock’s leadership). This would have been a distinctive foreign policy but it was abandoned and did not shape subsequent Labour governments.

Blair's doctrine of liberal intervention and Robin Cook's 'ethical foreign policy' were an attempt to redefine foreign policy for the modern age although it appeared to come unstuck over the Iraq War. Labour usually intends to create a distinctive foreign policy (David Lammy is currently describing his approach as 'progressive realism') but it has been and will be always torn between the demands of the United States, Europe and other countries.