Labour has a foreign policy vacuum. It needs to be filled.

by Nathan Jones

Ed Miliband and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander have given little away of their plan for Britain on the international stage. While it is not traditionally at the centre of election debate, foreign policy holds a special significance for Labour today because, despite Ed Miliband’s professed belief that it was ‘wrong to take Britain to war’ in 2003, public trust in Labour remains inextricably bound to Iraq. It is perhaps for this reason that Mr. Miliband has chosen to remain largely silent on what Labour’s foreign policy priorities would be in 2015.

Despite the many achievements of the last Labour government, Iraq still defines its legacy in many ways. Leaving the debate over legitimacy aside for now, it is clear that a lack of transparency on the road to war generated a huge deficit of trust. Blair’s popularity waned in the ensuing scandal, and was further eroded by a series of gradual, incremental revelations and inquiries which undermined New Labour’s new-found legitimacy.

Therefore it was not Sure Start, the minimum wage or a New Deal for Young People that became the party’s new epithet, but Iraq. If Labour is to win in 2015, a clear statement of international intent would go a long way to restoring public trust in a Miliband government’s ability to take the country forward.

Although policy remains patchy, there are some clues as to what Labour’s international intentions after 2015 will be. The vote on Syria stands out, when Labour forced an almost unprecedented change in government foreign policy from opposition. The decision to oppose what seemed like the inevitable move to intervention drew plaudits from the party’s leftist, anti-war support, but led others to question whether political concerns had taken precedence over the fate of the Syrian people.

The move seemed to demonstrate a desire to pursue diplomacy over unilateralism, or perhaps only a renewed caution when dealing with the ever-unpredictable Middle East. Either way, Iran’s unresolved nuclear ambitions and al Qa’eda’s recent resurgence in Iraq both suggest that future intervention in that troubled region is not unlikely. If involvement in such an event is out of the question (as is suggested by the Syria vote), Mr. Miliband may want to warm up diplomatic channels before 2015 – a pre-election foreign tour has stood many past leaders in good stead for power.

On Europe, Mr. Alexander has fastidiously avoided the appearance of politicking by refusing to be drawn on the prime minister’s proposed referendum. Having repeatedly made reference to rating the ‘national interest’ more highly than the risk of losing votes to UKIP, Alexander has taken the high road on Europe while remaining vague on specific policy prescriptions.

However, a red line of sorts has been drawn with Labour’s support for the sovereignty act, a provision that would trigger a referendum on the loss of a certain degree of national sovereignty to Europe. This caution, although perhaps risky in electoral terms, is wise as far as the future of multilateral European operations is concerned. The Conservatives’ alarmism over immigration and their insistence on aggressive EU treaty negotiation is generating ill will in Europe, which may lead to Britain’s exclusion from future European alliances.

Linked to the European issue is of course, Russia. The recent tug-of-war between Russia and Europe over Ukraine has highlighted Russia’s still persistent desire to cultivate its own sphere of influence; European leaders must be vigilant. However, despite Putin’s outward bluster his position is weaker than it seems and progressive forces are increasing pressure on the government by the day. Any opportunities for dialogue must be seized because the benefits of a more amenable Russia could be enormous – the disruption of the East/West divide on the security council would go some way to giving the UN renewed credibility on conflict resolution, and would weaken China’s bargaining position.

To conclude, in order to recapture the enthusiasm for a Labour government we need to deal with the skeletons in the closet. Whether 2015’s international issue is instability in the Middle East, a swaggering Russia or a tinderbox in the South China Sea, Labour must make clear its commitment to international engagement only on honest and direct terms, while not allowing the spectre of Iraq to cow us into a timid isolationism. Most importantly this commitment must be kept, and rigidly. There is no quick fix for public anger and apathy with politics, it must be remedied with honesty, and time.

Furthermore, in a time when Blair’s era of internationalism seems a distant memory, an opportunity is emerging for Labour to make clear exactly what its vision for Britain is. Liberal politics and the desire to play a role on the world stage are not irreconcilable, despite a desire by the extreme left to conflate engagement with imperialism, and the belief of the hard right that strong foreign policy and ethics should remain separate (interest defined in terms of power and so forth).

While Iraq may have tarnished Labour’s international credentials in the short-term, the next Labour government should not be afraid to learn from the past, and return to New Labour’s international vision. The Conservatives think they have national security tied up as an issue, but by separating patriotism from nationalism, engagement from militarism, and courage from hubris, Labour can outline a vision for a renewed internationalism, standing on a rebuilt foundation of trust.

Nathan Jones works in research at a communications consultancy

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15 Responses to “Labour has a foreign policy vacuum. It needs to be filled.”

  1. Tafia says:

    Vote share changes from 2011 in the Haverhill District Council by-election yesterday.
    UKIP 54% +54
    LAB 24.5% -12.7
    CON 16% -31.9
    LD 5.5% -9.4

    Incidentally, two county councillors somewhere else defected to them as well.

    During the Lords debate today, Marquis Lothian says “Europe is too important for the people to decide.”

  2. When it comes to foreign policy these day would be fairly safe to assume that in fact Mr. Milliband doesn’t Love Thart moite?

  3. Ross says:

    As a serving Army officer, I respectfully suggest that it is not ‘timid isolationism’ to recognise that the UK and US have grossly overestimated the legitimacy and efficacy of military force: as our peer group have learnt to our cost over a decade of war, there are exceedingly few occasions on which we can impose our will at the barrel of a gun. 179 service personnel died in Iraq proving this, and 447 and counting have done so in Afghanistan, not to mention thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, and the £billions squandered.

    ‘The desire to play a role on the world stage’ that you cite should be sated through the other three tools in the government’s armoury: diplomacy, information and economic levers. The quasi-lobotomised ‘something must be done’ rhetoric in response to international crises must be overruled by pragmatism, reality and – dare I suggest that people get educated – strategic and historical analysis: this will not, incidentally, come from an MOD, and an Army, desperate to deploy *anywhere* to redeem the grim failures that are TELIC and HERRICK.

    A sensible, albeit brave, Labour government in 2015 would cut the army from the current 82,000 troops to c20,000, and stop haemorrhaging money than the government doesn’t have on military capabilities that taxpayers don’t want to pay for. This has been long-argued, but resisted by vested interests, such as senior military who wish to retain their jobs:

    “Why Britain Needs a New Defence Policy. Britain’s defence policy is heading in the wrong direction and a fundamental rethink is necessary. Far from enhancing the country’s security, the current policy is damaging it; moreover, it is imposing unnecessary costs in terms of financial resources, lost opportunities and the death and wounding of scores of British service personnel. It is time for radical change. This article explains why. (Paul Robinson, Royal United Services Institute Journal, Aug 2005, Vol. 150, No. 4. RUSI website, PDF version:

    For further information on the predictable & predicted disaster that is Afghanistan, and the wider policy issues for the UK, see

  4. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Perhaps Ed and Labour’s foreign policy priorities will be Scotland in 2015?

    ……..and Ed would have to attend to further foreign policy matters.

    Charity begins at home…….. now in Britain we may be able to add foreign policy.

  5. Mr Akira Origami says:

    ……and what can we look forward to if there is a no vote?

    The Salmondator!

    There is no stopping the nationalist cyborg assasin.

    …………”I’ll be back.”

    Not another 15 years of living under the threat from the Salmondator!

    Scottish folk had better vote yes and get it over with surely?


    Perhaps the oil will run out by 2029 together with the Salmondator’s credibility?

  6. steve says:

    “a clear statement of international intent would go a long way to restoring public trust in a Miliband government’s ability to take the country forward.”

    Well, sort of.

    It will depend on the contents of the statement.

    When a senior Labour figure like Dan Jarvis* joins the Tories in an attempting to revise the accepted Harry Patch view of WW1 as a disaster we must wonder what future Iraq-like disasters Labour is prepared is prepared to countenance.


  7. Robert says:

    Labour’s foreign policy should be stay in the EU, stick to 0.7% aid, do not invade or bomb other countries unless there is no other option, support countries trying to be democratic and provide troops for peacekeeping operations.

  8. eric clyne says:

    Good review. Regarding Ukraine I think we should cool the language and the attitude. The Poles are aggressively pursuing the detachment of Ukraine from Russian sphere of influence knowing they can thumb their noses at Putin now they are under NATO umbrella. Their conduct is provocative.

    Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in the 1950’s. Can you imagine how Russians feel about this? Crimean treaties come up for renegotiation at end of this decade. EU & NATO should be hands off. We do not want an accidental crisis getting bloody over the status of the Crimea.

  9. bob says:

    Invading other countries maybe just about to bite labour in the backside if the fool Shiner and his European chums have their way, hopefully Hoon in court in the Hague. Hope he tries the Nuremberg defense and implicates Blair.

  10. swatantra says:

    Britain still hasn’t found a role, and until it accepts that it is just another European country, it will be eyeless in Gaza and the rest of the Middle East and Africa and Asia and S America.

  11. Ash says:

    Albeit not official Labour policy tou might actually want to read the book Alexander recently co-edited…

  12. Tafia says:

    Labour Foreign Policy.

    1. Are we big enough to bomb them on our own? Bomb them.

    2. If not do the Americans want to bomb them. Join in and bomb them.

    3. Is there anyone the Americans want to bomb? Tell them we’ll help.

  13. Hinyang Wang Chong says:

    You’ve made references to you being your own man, and you being your own man is to make peace with people I have issues with. You see if you stand next to somebody, and you down, then you got issues with him. Now you become a victim. Now since then, jonesys been on twitter, and dissed him again. If it was upto me, and jonesy was around, his website would exist. Let them all get they own shoes. Milliband 615 cashville records at the end of the day, is desperation.

  14. Malcolm Smith says:

    Millibands dad hated Britain.

  15. Tamer Hussan says:

    Don’t get lemon, so do I.

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