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  • Alistair Somerville

Local needs and global ambitions: Cities’ role in an internationalist foreign policy

Ever since dockers from Sydney and Brisbane organized donations to sustain the 1889 Great London Dock Strike, cities have shaped global politics as cradles of progressivism and international solidarity.

During the strike, 100,000 labourers shut down the Port of London for the entire summer. Australian dockers donated over £30,000 to a strike fund, which helped secure better pay and working conditions. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 18 September, 1889, “At the great demonstration in Hyde Park in celebration of the close of the strike, the Australian flag waved above the platform from which the addresses were made.”

Much has changed since this early display of the symbolic and material power of international solidarity between urban populations. Cities now have dedicated mayors and their own governments to address local needs, and can increasingly influence global efforts to address transnational issues. Nevertheless, the values of international cooperation and inclusivity — evident in 1889 — should still drive Labour cities’ approaches to the economic, climate and technological challenges of today.

London is central to this effort. With the message of insularity that Brexit sends to the world, the capital’s position as a globally connected, internationalist and diverse city is more crucial than ever. London’s role, alongside Bristol, as a key venue for the international spread of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, epitomises the power of solidarity between diverse urban populations even in the face of conservative, even reactionary, national governments.

As the Great London Dock Strike illustrated, the global and the local have long been intimately connected. City Hall must articulate clearly the ways in which every global initiative meets the material needs of Londoners as the UK rebuilds its economy post-pandemic.

For example, City Hall must champion an approach to global human rights issues based on the Labour values of internationalism, fairness and cooperation. London’s economic clout means that the mayor must commit to eradicating Modern Slavery from supply chains, and introduce a human rights investment strategy that specifically divests from companies implicated in human rights abuses.

Moreover, London Labour should also commit to a specific focus on women and girls’ rights through the appointment of a dedicated advisor in City Hall, and take an intersectional approach to advance the position of women and girls both in London and around the world. Global cities like London can elevate the salience of human rights issues, and should partner with like-minded city governments around the world to do so.

City and local governments are able to diverge from national governments in their messaging, partnerships, and even in certain areas of direct policy. This was evident in the United States after the Trump administration announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, when state and local governments stepped up and committed to meet the agreement’s targets anyway. Just as a Labour City Hall can apply pressure on the Tory government to meet internationally agreed climate targets, it can also work together with other cities, such as the host of this year’s COP26 climate summit — Glasgow — to ensure that the UK contributes to the global fight against climate change in ways that work best for local communities.

This approach also applies to the broader UN Sustainable Development Goals. They address climate change, but also seek to end poverty, improve education and ensure more equitable health outcomes — all issues Londoners care deeply about. Cities like London, as densely populated urban centres, are sources of enormous human capital and innovation to develop global solutions to these challenges, but are also sites of massive wealth inequality, housing crises and unaddressed economic hardship.

Across policy areas, City Hall should harness the power of partnerships between cities in a strategic way. Borough-level twinning initiatives can facilitate cultural exchange, both in person and virtually. Industry-specific international exchanges, for example in the technology and urban planning sectors, can help to ensure that the economic benefits of innovation are shared with local populations to drive economic growth. City Hall’s ‘London is Open’ campaign is an example of how to frame this effort — acknowledging and amplifying the benefits that global connectivity, collaboration with other cities, people-to-people connection and cooperation on trade and investment can have for Londoners.

In addition to our submission to the London Labour manifesto, LFPG seeks to shape the conversation around other cities’ important role in foreign policy. Capital cities naturally present the greatest opportunities for sub-national governments to effect global change; but their role as hubs for innovation and business, international exchange and progressive activism also requires them to build effective connections with small and mid-sized cities domestically, which should in turn develop their own international vision that benefits the local population.

London is just the start. By sharing best practices and collaborating with other British cities, London can build a progressive domestic network. To play their own in the wider world, mayors around the country will need clear policies to connect global ambitions to local needs. LFPG looks forward to contributing to the ongoing debate.


Alistair Somerville is an international relations and diplomacy editor from London, currently based in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Labour Foreign Policy Group and tweets @apsomerville.


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