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The UK’s Labour Party: The Long March to Regaining Trust and Electability on Security Policy

The UK’s chief opposition party has overhauled its foreign and security policies. But some of the biggest policy choices are yet to be made.

‘The Labour Party is under new management’, was the robust response of opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday 22 July in their last Prime Minister's Questions battle before the summer recess. His remarks came after a sharp exchange between the two about the delayed Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia. In just over 100 days, Starmer has been a marked improvement on his predecessor, two-times election loser, Jeremy Corbyn. 

Muted Beginnings

During the Labour leadership campaign from January to April, Starmer had been very cautious about making any policy commitments. His 10 pledges, crafted to win support from the left, included:

  • ‘Promote peace and human rights;
  • No more illegal wars;
  • Introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy;
  • Review all UK arms sales and make us a force for international peace and justice’.

Starmer gave firm commitments to root out anti-Semitism, but on foreign, defence and security policy he had little to say. His impressive rival, Lisa Nandy, was far more outspoken in challenging the Corbynite past, including supporting humanitarian intervention. 

Refreshing The Front Bench, Repositioning The Party

Following his decisive victory, Starmer appointed Nandy as shadow foreign secretary, the reliable John Healey as shadow defence secretary, and the talented Nick Thomas-Symonds as shadow home secretary. Capable MPs who had been banished to the back benches in the Corbyn era were given posts, including in the foreign affairs team. Corbyn critic, Conor McGinn, became shadow security minister. And Starmer subsequently sacked his Corbynite leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet after she failed to delete an anti-Semitic retweet.

Corbyn had been the chair of the Stop the War Coalition; he had appointed journalist Seumas Milne, who has been accused of being pro-Vladimir Putin, and ex-Communist Andrew Murray as his key advisers. However, soon after she was appointed as shadow foreign secretary, Nandy said ‘we got it wrong on Russia’ and the Labour attitude to Putin's Russia changed most dramatically.

Nandy and Stephen Kinnock have also been outspoken on China, expressing strong support for Hong Kong democrats, and for Magnitsky-style sanctions on Communist Chinese officials over the appalling crimes being carried out against Muslim Uyghurs.

But many people who supported Corbyn’s so-called ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘pro-peace’ approach are still active in the Labour Party at all levels, including some on Starmer's front bench. They will continue to defend what they see as the gains of the Corbyn era and press Starmer on his pledge to be ‘a force for peace and justice’. The new party leadership know this and are treading very carefully. 

In June, Labour sent out documents as part of its policy review consultation. The document, entitled ‘Championing Internationalism in the Post-Coronavirus World’, is very short at just 10 pages. And it says very little: 

Across the world, conflicts continue unabated in fragile states ... such as in Syria, Yemen and Libya

… there are unresolved political tensions where human security and civil liberties are regularly by-passed, such as in Kashmir, Hong Kong, Venezuela and Iran.

There has been a regression of international law and respect for human life such as the planned annexation of the occupied West Bank and the plight of the Uighurs and the Rohingya.

There is, incredibly, no mention of NATO at all, no reference to levels of defence spending, no reference to Trident or nuclear deterrence, and no direct reference to the defence industry or to arms exports, apart from: ‘we must find a way to better utilise ... the expertise of our worker forces (sic), trades unions, and British defence manufacturers for the benefit of partners around the world’. 

The Tasks Ahead And The Questions Still Requiring Answers

There will be no Party conference this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, so the leadership has ample time in which to develop a more detailed policy. It will need it.

Take policy in the Middle East as an example. Under Corbyn and his then Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, the Labour front bench was silent on the crimes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the malign role of Iran, while being outspoken against the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel. These positions were very popular with some left-wing activists; Saudi diplomats were even banned from attending the Party conference.

A major test for Starmer and Nandy will be whether they can manage transition to a more nuanced and balanced view of the world. One key test will be attitudes to Israel. The Corbyn leadership had Palestinian flags distributed and waved in the Conference hall during the international debate. Nandy has been a leading figure in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and recently called for a boycott of goods from West Bank settlements, but she has said that she is opposed to the call for BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – against Israel itself. Corbyn never visited Israel. Will Labour now work to improve relations with an early visit by Starmer? 

Corbyn referred to Hamas and Hizbullah as his friends. Under Corbyn, Labour did not support a complete ban on Hizbullah, but under Starmer, that policy has changed.

Will it now distance itself from Hamas too? What attitude will Labour take to Libya, and to the governments of Egypt and Turkey? Does Labour support a continuing presence in Iraq? Does Labour support UK bases in the Gulf, including Bahrain? What is the Labour view of Iran? Will Labour maintain opposition to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia? What sanctions or other measures should follow the Iranian breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after the US withdrawal from these agreements? 

Throughout its history, Labour always had tension between its trade union affiliates and left-wing anti-military activists. But the Attlee government established NATO and introduced nuclear weapons, which were maintained and updated under the governments of Labour prime ministers Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown. Corbyn had an uncomfortable, ‘keep but never use’ compromise with the trade unions and the parliamentary party over Trident, and it is now likely that the left will press for a return to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament nuclear unilateralism of the 1980s. So, the new leadership will be expected to answer the question of the role of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, as well as what should be the UK’s stance towards the NPT Review and in any future arms control process.

Beyond that, there is the broader question of how Labour will react to the Integrated Review. Will the post-coronavirus economic crisis lead to demands for a reduction in military spending? Will Labour remain committed to the two-percent NATO target, and what will this mean when total GDP plummets?

There are also the thorny questions about Labour’s support for the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy and defence and security cooperation with the EU, either on a multilateral basis, or through key partners such as France and Germany. It was relatively easy for Labour to take an anti-Trump position on foreign policy and to criticise Theresa May and Boris Johnson, but a Biden presidency could pose challenges for both government and opposition.

Diaspora communities have come to have a big influence in Labour politics at local and parliamentary levels, and as a result, some issues have become very divisive inside the party. One of the most difficult divisions is about the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. This caused problems for former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook under the Blair government, and there has been disquiet by some within the British Pakistani community as Starmer attempts to move away from the simplistic anti-Modi positioning of Corbyn.

A Glass Half Full

The Corbyn era was the low point of Labour foreign and defence policy. I resigned in February 2019 after 50 years because I could not justify being in a party which gave support to Putin, Assad and Nicolás Maduro. I have been greatly encouraged by what Starmer, Nandy and others have said and done so far. But there is a long way to go to return Labour to having a patriotic policy which will restore the trust and confidence of the British people. 

Mike Gapes was Labour MP for Ilford South from 1992 until 2019, and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee from 2005 to 2010. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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