Does Britain’s Labour Have a Plan for Power?

Britain’s Conservative government is not polling well. It has cycled through three leaders since the last election, while the economic outlook is increasingly bleak. The party seems willing to continue governing under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the latest inhabitant of No. 10—but it is unclear whether the next election, due in just over a year, could produce that outcome. The opposition Labour Party could very soon be in government.

Britain’s Conservative government is not polling well. It has cycled through three leaders since the last election, while the economic outlook is increasingly bleak. The party seems willing to continue governing under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the latest inhabitant of No. 10—but it is unclear whether the next election, due in just over a year, could produce that outcome. The opposition Labour Party could very soon be in government.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, has a good chance of becoming Britain’s prime minister—and with it, bringing a new foreign policy approach to the first Labour government in 15 years.

Like U.S. President Joe Biden, Starmer wishes to present his foreign policy as a “return to normal,” in contrast both to the foreign policy of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who was heavily criticized for his anti-Western attitudes and love of authoritarian states, and of Boris Johnson, the former Tory prime minister. Starmer has characterized Johnson as “Britain’s [Donald] Trump” and as “cozying up” to illiberal international leaders, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Starmer’s individual arguments and ideas have merit. But his prospective foreign policy is rougher and less well-formed. It is based as much upon the dictates of opposition politics in Britain and on Starmer’s own tendencies towards doctrinaire legalism as on any coherent and active foreign policy prospectus.

It is possible to construct a possible foreign policy for a Starmer government—but there’s not yet a coherent worldview in evidence, despite making strides forward since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. After he was elected leader of the Labour Party in April 2020, Starmer and his first shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, began to develop a foreign policy doctrine for the post-Corbyn Labour Party. Nandy’s replacement in November 2021 with David Lammy has left this process in the air. Under Starmer and Lammy, the job is unfinished. Much more must be done to make Labour’s foreign policy ready for government.

Unlike Corbyn, Starmer does not have a decades-long political career filled with statements of belief and advocacy of specific causes. Corbyn was a member not just of the left of the Labour Party, but also effectively an advocate of the Cold War era philosophy of campism—which dogmatically opposes the United States and favors U.S. enemies, no matter whether they are Syria under President Bashar al-Assad, Palestinian terrorist groups, Putin’s Russia (which has launched a nerve agent attack on British soil), or the regime of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Instead, Starmer, a career lawyer and former director of public prosecutions, has so far constructed his foreign policy around a number of tent-pole episodes in recent political history, some of which occurred before he was elected to Parliament. Starmer has coasted, somewhat, on what he takes to be the lesson of the Iraq War, launched by a previous Labour administration. He maintains that it was an illegal war, and has mooted the passage of a law that would have prevented a future government of Britain from committing forces in action without extra parliamentary and public support than the constitution currently allows. That emphasis on legalism is a key part of Starmer’s policy.

If Starmer’s foreign policy were to be enacted as it currently stands, and is presented, Britain would not lurch into a radical and untested foreign policy departure from the mainstream—as would have happened under Corbyn. There have been encouraging developments, especially recently, to show that Starmer’s foreign policy would be assertive and serious. Corbyn’s party would have taken an “anti-imperialist” stance on Ukraine that excused, as Corbyn has done repeatedly, Russia’s own imperialism; Starmer, in contrast, has taken a strong stance in defense of Ukraine’s democracy. Labour this month criticized the U.K. government when it announced Britain would send Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine by saying that arms were taking too long to reach the front line; Corbyn might have been against sending arms at all.

But most of Starmer’s day-to-day foreign policy pronouncements—at least until the invasion of Ukraine in 2022—have been dictated by the requirements of opposition politics. As such, his foreign policy opinions, aside from those on Ukraine, are largely determined by the advantage they confer in domestic political theatre. Before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Putinsim was most associated in U.K. domestic politics with Brexit—which the “Remain” center-left alleged had been accompanied by Russian support. As a social democrat and supporter of the European Union, Starmer’s criticism of Putin’s Russia was mostly oriented around Russian disinformation efforts and its opposition to European unity.

The law has dominated much of Starmer’s life and most of his political career. In politics, Starmer is prone to emphasize process and formality, which characterize his public remarks about foreign affairs and the basic approach he has taken to both Brexit and recent foreign-policy crises such as the Iraq War and intervention against the Islamic State in Syria. Starmer maintains that the Iraq War was on its face illegal, and steers clear of moral questions in his condemnation of it. He has a similarly technical view of the war against the Islamic State: That it was legal—but he did not vote for it—but also that British citizens who fought for the Islamic State ought to be tried in U.K. courts rather than stripped of British citizenship or left in refugee camps.

Since he became the leader of the Labour Party, Starmer has also shown what I call “strategic silence.” When used, this technique consists of saying the “right” things on international affairs, but proposing essentially no action. It allows the observer to fill in their own desired policy.

Labour under Starmer talks of rebuilding alliances but does not necessarily specify which ones; Stramer says there is no case for rejoining the European Union but has not definitively ruled out doing so. He favors action on climate change, opposition to populism, and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. On Afghanistan, Labour supported the NATO withdrawal but was critical of the nature of it. It largely confined its blame to criticism of the U.K. government for incompetence and ministers for having gone on holiday as Kabul fell. These criticisms are valid but offer nothing positive or affirmative for Labour to do in office.

As things stand, we can guess at a Starmer foreign policy. It would likely favor maintaining Britain’s existing alliances but be unlikely to establish new ones. It would evidence ideological support for Biden’s foreign policy and the broad goals of the European Union. Starmer would oppose the revisionist illiberal powers in Europe, including Orban’s Hungary and Putin’s Russia. And he would seek to work with other states on a case-by-case basis in relation to, for instance, climate change and decarbonization.

These are more attitudes than concrete policies. They cannot be depended upon alone.

Without constructing a more positive vision, the Labour Party risks entering government unprepared. The current government has supervised the production of the Integrated Review, and its midterm supplement, both documents and strategies that put forward a vision for Britain in the world, something referred to by ministers using the bywords “Global Britain.” At the present time, Labour under Starmer has no strategy or plan of similar depth.

This is not a permanent flaw. Labour can still generate an assertive, active foreign policy that, instead of presenting reflexive opposition to the current government, seeks to form a coherent vision for interacting with the world. It can still have a policy fit to enact the moment Labour enters government, something robust enough to survive and shape Britain’s response to contemporary and future crises.

Britain’s allies, especially the United States, must still consider whether Britain under Starmer would be an automatic partner in, for example, containing Chinese expansionism, or a new counterterrorism mission in the greater Middle East or the Sahel, or carrying out strikes to punish the use of chemical, radiological, biological, or nuclear weapons. A Starmer-led U.K. may well want to distinguish itself from U.S. foreign policy, not endorse it wholeheartedly.

In recent months, Starmer has become more focused and more active on the question of Russian aggression towards Ukraine. His foreign policy and defense team have produced strong and clear statements, and Labour’s parliamentary tactics—of supporting the general trend of government policy while highlighting what it considers necessary adjustments—has been serious and sophisticated. This has not yet been replicated in other areas. But it could still be.

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