This Briefing explores the ways in which a Labour victory in the upcoming General Elections might offer strong continuity and only subtle change in British foreign policy. This piece was written by William Vaccaro and edited by Carla Smith.
Labour’s consistent and striking 18 point lead (at the time of writing) over the Conservatives, ahead of next year’s election, demands a deeper understanding of the shadow government’s foreign policy ambitions. After 13 years out of power, the party’s proposed foreign policy programme can be best characterised as a continuation of the fundamentals of British foreign policy governance under the Conservative leadership, from maintaining its security programme to recommitting Britain to previously set targets on climate and development and shoring up alliances. The greatest points of departure are in matters of tone and degree. This briefing will consider Labour’s foreign policy along three lines: security, climate and development, and global economic outlook.
In his March 2023 pamphlet, Shadow Foreign Minister David Lammy outlined Labour’s intention to reinvigorate its post-Brexit alliance with the EU through a security pact to enable greater levels of communication and coordination between ministers across Europe. This move is in line with a foundational aim of Labour’s foreign policy to recenter alliances and its relationships with key strategic partners in a multipolar world. While looking to improve its relationship with mainland Europe, Labour has consistently asserted its unwillingness to reconsider Britain’s EU membership. Despite the party’s self-identification with the “Stop Brexit” movement four years ago, its pivot reflects the reality that a move to renegotiate EU entry would generate considerable instability (and is largely viewed unfavourably) and stands to reignite deeply entrenched voter positions on the issue. To win the next election, Labour needs the support of Britons who voted to leave the EU in 2016. This bloc, while representing a minority of Labour’s supporters, is more prevalent in the areas Labour lost in 2019, and whose support the party will need in the next election. In this light, Labour is not in a position to radically redefine Britain’s relationship with mainland Europe
In Israel, Labour supports the Jewish State’s right to self-defence – in effect supporting the IDF’s Gaza campaign in the short term. Starmer’s Labour backs a two-state solution after the immediate conflict is resolved, staying in line with the current government’s stance in both the short and long runs. This unified British position contrasts the stance of Israel PM Bibi Netanyahu and members of his government who want to use the current situation as an opportunity to pursue a one-state solution. On Ukrainian aid, an issue which garners widespread support from Britons across the political spectrum, Labour maintains Britain’s steadfast support and calls for accelerated financial and military support. Britain’s outspoken positions on Israel and Ukraine reflect a united diplomatic front between Joe Biden’s administration and the United Kingdom.
In Asia, Labour supports Britain’s continued participation in AUKUS – the major military alliance established in 2021– under a Conservative UK government– between Australia, the UK, and the US created as an answer to rising Chinese power in the South China Sea. In March 2023, the alliance promised the first nuclear submarines to Australia to combat Chinese naval power, bolstering the first line of defence against an increasingly assertive China. If elected, British security policy under Labour is likely to maintain its current track, albeit with a greater emphasis on maintaining and expanding its military relationship with the EU and NATO.
Labour’s approach to climate and global development – a set of issues that it sees as inexorably linked– is defined by a more consistent climate-friendly tone and commitment to Britain’s climate goals. A Labour government would, dependent on future economic conditions, reinstate Britain's commitment to spend 0.7% of income on international aid– which has fallen to 0.5% since 2020 following a round of COVID-induced fiscal belt tightening– while combining climate and development goals. Lisa Nandy, Labour’s international development shadow minister, envisions a more active role for Britain in international development focused on Britain’s areas of expertise– education, skills building, and finance– while retaining the Conservative party’s prioritisation of women and girls’ issues. Lammy’s pledge to centre the climate crisis in foreign policy by pushing for the environment to become the fourth pillar of the UN (joining peace, human rights, and development) exemplifies the party’s progressive climate rhetoric.
While these commitments clarify a progressive climate policy, they are largely in line with the current government’s policy: in 2021, the UK government named climate change as ‘its number one international priority,’ promising a commitment of 11.6 billion pounds by 2026 to assist low-income countries in combating climate change. Despite its commitments, the Conservative government has exhibited a lack of consistency on climate policy: in July, Conservatives narrowly won a by-election in Uxbridge through voters’ opposition to higher taxes on high-emission vehicles, a strategy Sunak has said he plans to continue in the run-up to the next election. In the face of a Tory party seemingly willing to shift climate rhetoric as an election strategy, a Labour government would offer a more consistent climate-friendly tone while solidifying UK climate commitments.
In economic policy, Labour’s global outlook is defined by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ ‘Securonomics’– Labour’s congruent response to US President Joe Biden’s ‘Bidenomics.’ Like Bidenomics, Securonomics represents a protectionist strain of thinking emerging from a reaction to supply chain insecurity. Heavy industrial subsidies, so the thinking goes, ensure British security and independence while creating high-paying jobs. While Labour seeks to leverage public investment to direct Britain towards a more prosperous future, Conservatives continue to envision a smaller role for government, opting to allow open markets to direct investment. The impacts of Securonomics will likely be tied to economic conditions: strong economic headwinds could signal a greater willingness to spend, bolstering independent supply chains and reducing Britain’s participation in global trade in strategic industries, while poor conditions could hinder Labour’s willingness to spend heavily.
This strategy reflects a shift in global outlook away from the globalism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Following America’s lead, Labour sees the answer to a more insecure, multipolar world as looking inward and strengthening its relationships with close allies, no longer seeing globalism as a golden ticket to prosperity. A Labour government favouring protectionist policies could begin the shift away from the Conservative open market vision for a ‘Global Britain', which emphasises ‘openness as a source of prosperity,’ in favour of greater government involvement in strategic economic areas coupled with an eventual reduction in trade with China in renewable energy technologies. While this shift in outlook towards the role of government is a divergence from Conservative thought, the practical issues surrounding balancing fiscal conservatism and an aggressive spending campaign have the potential to stand in the way of implementation. The effective change here is in outlook, rather than in substantial shifts in foreign policy.
While passing the reins of government to Labour alone would not greatly shift Britain’s foreign policy, external factors have a greater ability to change Britain’s position on the world stage. The growing influence of the isolationist wing of the Republican party in the US House of Representatives has so far restricted the US’s ability to provide additional funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. In tandem with the growing odds of a second Trump Administration by the end of 2024– the former President now polls ahead of President Biden in key swing states– these trends reflect the possibility of the US shrinking from its role as a global leader. Trump has proved to be an unsteady hand in his leadership of the West. His threats to pull the US out of NATO, sporadic approach to foreign policy, and soft spot for authoritarian leaders around the world threaten the United State’s ability to act as a global leader. This shift could prompt Britain to take on a more active role in encouraging European support for Ukraine, potentially help align Western response to China, and stepping into the vacuum left behind by a more isolationist US.
A Labour victory in the next election alone would have minimal tangible impacts on Britain’s foreign policy. Rather, Labour offers the potential for a closer EU/UK security relationship and stronger rhetorical commitment on climate and development while its primary area of real policy difference– economic protectionism– is likely to be hamstrung by economic constraints. A change in US leadership in 2024, in addition to the continued growth of US isolationism, could lead to a real shift in Britain’s foreign policy, taking a stronger leadership role of Western institutions.