Labour’s Foreign Policy: Can Britain Become a Global Player Again?

Alfa Uddin, Client Executive

The world is becoming increasingly unstable. Geopolitical strife has brought war to Europe, escalation in the Middle East and tensions rise in the Pacific. With Labour poised to win the upcoming general election, the UK’s position on the geopolitical scene will require strong positions from its government. As such it is more important than ever to analyse Labour’s foreign policy.

Prior to the release of the manifesto, it was suggested that both Labour and the Conservatives share many common approaches on key foreign policy matters. So, how does Labour differ, and can we expect a significant shift in Britain’s foreign policy?

The Labour manifesto emphasises national security, particularly by strengthening NATO and committing to the UK’s nuclear deterrent. A potential Labour government will have to navigate a fine line between cooperation with NATO allies, declining global standing, defence innovation, and improving adaptability to evolving threats, all while managing high costs, nuclear safety risks, ethical challenges, and potential changes to UK relations with countries that may perceive the UK’s stance as contentious.

Simultaneously, Labour’s commitment to maintaining the nuclear deterrent, particularly given that several of Labour’s front bench previously voted against the renewal of Trident in 2016 has raised questions. Starmer is trying to steer the party to a more centrist or pragmatic position, moving away from the pro-left image that very likely would have opposed the use of nuclear deterrents. This shift reflects an effort to reshape the party’s image and policies to be more in line with the current escalating geopolitical landscape.

Regarding strategic relations, the Labour manifesto has singled out countries with which it seeks to strengthen partnerships. Notably, many of these consist of emerging markets such as the Middle East and India, focusing on areas such as trade, energy, and investment. Under the Conservative government, negotiations with these countries began in 2022 but many remain unfinished. While the current UK government has concentrated on signing trade agreements, such as with the Asia-Pacific that aimed to replace previous EU relationships, Labour appears to prioritise sector-specific collaborations.

Meanwhile, Labour has also pledged to continue a close relationship with the UK's indispensable ally, the US. Looking ahead, if David Lammy is promoted to the Foreign Office and Donald Trump is re-elected, despite Labour’s manifesto asserting that the 'special relationship’ "transcends whatever political parties and individuals are in office," navigating potential tensions seems inevitable, given Lammy's past characterisation of Trump as a " neo-Nazi-sympathising sociopath”. Whether Trump is also quick to forgive and forget remains to be seen.

As the relationship between China and the US continues to sour, the UK must also consider the impacts of the rising tensions between the two. The current situation between both countries is characterised by a trade war, marked by trade protectionism, tech competition, and escalating tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Labour’s manifesto pledge is an attempt to balance the UK’s economic security by aligning with the US and maintaining trade with China. The outcome of Labour’s position; therefore, will heavily depend on whether the current relationship stabilises rather than continues to spiral.

Labour has made it abundantly clear that the UK will remain outside of the EU, with no intention of re-joining the single market, the customs union, or accepting freedom of movement. Nevertheless, Labour aims to negotiate trade, investment, and security agreements with the EU. This stance means that Labour will need to navigate the complexities of maintaining a relationship with the EU while upholding UK sovereignty. This will undoubtedly impact other foreign policies, especially in defence and security, where collaboration with the US in such areas, as outlined in the manifesto, is a key priority.

Unfortunately, foreign policy often involves dealing with war. The Labour Party plans to maintain the UK's support for Ukraine by repurposing frozen Russian assets and leading efforts to provide Ukraine with a clear path to NATO membership. Hence, concerns about Article 5 will undoubtedly arise if Russian aggression continues. This will provide an opportunity to ensure the UK continues to play a significant role in this conflict, specifically supporting Ukraine without risking a broader military conflict.

Regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, Labour advocates for peace in the Middle East through a ceasefire, the release of hostages and increased aid to Gaza. Under a Labour government, achieving peace also means pursuing a two-state solution. To achieve this goal, Labour must move beyond advocacy to take concrete, transformative actions that facilitate such a solution. Their defence and foreign policy plans in the Middle East will only be successful if they contribute to sustainable peace. However, this will not be an easy task and may further expose divisions within the party itself.

Currently, Labour's manifesto holds potential to tackle numerous urgent foreign policy issues. If elected, assessing the impact of their defence programmes, strategic relationships, and ability to resolve global conflicts will be crucial. Beyond dealing with international relations, foreign policy also involves promoting one’s country on the global stage - it is paramount for Britain to achieve this and success will depend on it.

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