top of page
  • Larry Attree

Ready for the storm? Labour's Foreign and Security Thinking

By Larry Attree

Last week's shadow cabinet reshuffle reaffirmed David Lammy as British Foreign Secretary in waiting. So how is Labour’s foreign and security policy offer shaping up?

The challenge ahead

Foreign and security policies rarely win power for an opposition, but they are vital for promoting public well-being, which – as COVID and the Ukraine war have underlined – is deeply connected to peace and cooperation overseas. As New Labour learned via Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and then Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign policy rapidly becomes a central, defining issue for a party of government.

Fatigued by Brexit, COVID, the Ukraine war and the cost of living crisis, the UK public seems set to end Tory rule at the next election. At pains to display its ‘safe hands’ on security, Labour lambasts Rishi Sunak for failing to stop the flow of asylum boats, and vows to confront Russian threats, kill terrorists, tackle extremism, accelerate weapons procurement and reverse cuts to the armed forces.

Uncomfortable as this may be for those who count on Labour to champion peace, justice and human rights, this tactic of removing any risk of the party getting outflanked on the right should see Labour back into office after 14 painful years in opposition. Yet the day is fast approaching when Labour will need to swap soundbites that resonate in the ‘red wall’ with a capacity to navigate the stormy seas surrounding the UK.

Today’s ‘polycrisis’ is defined by intense competition between rival powers, serious economic volatility, the climate emergency and alarming trends in autocratisation, inequality, instability and displacement. As rival powers abet authoritarianism and strife, multilateral response mechanisms have become log-jammed.

Given Britain’s stagnant growth, low productivity and simmering domestic discontent, it has less power, resources and cohesion to respond than when Labour last held office. In such a context, from day one Labour will need a deep grasp of past lessons and the dilemmas ahead, a clear sense of purpose and values, a bank of the best ideas, and the wisdom to listen to a wide range of feedback when making the hard decisions.

Reasons to be optimistic about Labour’s agenda

Lammy set out his vision ‘Britain Reconnected: A Foreign Policy for Security and Prosperity at Home’ in March, and the paper contains several positives. It is strong on the case for investing in clean energy and tackling climate crisis within and beyond Britain. Embracing a rapid transition, however challenging, sounds like a win-win-win backed by credible ideas.

Another strength is the reaffirmation of Britain’s commitment to development. The brushstrokes are broad, but peacebuilding, justice, climate, feminism, governance and elite behaviour all feature as priorities. The theory of change may need more elaboration: Cameron's golden thread was arguably bolder in asserting peace, rights and freedom as the foundation for poverty reduction. Yet Lammy's vision could help reverse years in which the UK has fallen short of its potential to promote development, peace and open societies.

Encouragingly, Lammy’s development agenda aims to break with the UK’s colonial, paternalistic tendencies. Drawing on his personal history and instincts, he sees that the UK can’t simply tell unpalatable power holders to mend their ways or get lost: the UK must achieve influence via more equal partnerships with more autonomous counterparts in today’s multipolar world. Nonetheless, he displays a sense of realism about how to reconcile an ethical, sustainable vision with Britain’s limited power and hunger for prosperity at home. Thus he grasps the idea that success in green transition can both benefit the economy and lessen the UK’s dependency on autocrats – releasing more agency for the UK to advance causes it cares about.

Here, Lammy could signal greater determination to address rising tides of repression, polarisation and conflict engulfing hundreds of millions of people. Authoritarianism profoundly shapes our ability to get all else done (i.e. on climate, stability and development) in a crisis-ridden world; and Labour’s roots in the struggle for disadvantaged people should guarantee its affinity with civil society, human rights defenders and peaceful change movements with the potential to transform autocracies around the world.

A coherent pragmatism is again on display in Lammy’s ideas on how progress on conflict, trade relations and supply chain issues can be crucial to addressing domestic economic insecurity: he is refreshingly clear on why better foreign policy matters to voters and why a principled approach can be crucial for getting the outcomes from foreign policy that Britain's people need. Such clarity could help build vital public support for a progressive, pragmatic narrative to underpin UK foreign policy under Labour.

This joined-up, optimistic vision could herald a 3 point-turn out of the cul-de-sac into which vapid, backward-looking ‘Global Britain’ rhetoric has led the UK. Lammy is right that Brexit Britain’s puffed-up, erratic persona has diminished UK influence overseas, and that reversing this trend will require restoring values, reliability and the ‘power of our example’ as a basis for cooperative international partnerships.

Another strength is that Lammy aspires to go beyond riding the waves of successive crises towards more sustained, strategic approaches. For him, Russia-Ukraine is important, but it can’t be an excuse for losing grip on other critical long term issues, such as nuclear de-risking and cooperation. Easier said than done, perhaps. Yet, to his credit, Lammy also articulates a plan to fix an FCDO depleted by ministerial unpredictability, empty coffers and flagging morale so that the UK has the machinery in place for consistent, strategic overseas engagement.

Four key areas for reflection

Alongside the positives, there are areas where Lammy and Labour should be braver – and consult more widely – to reach the right answers. Showing a ‘safe pair of hands’ to voters could lock Labour into conventional thinking that in fact leaves the UK exposed. As a stalwart ally of Ukraine, hostile to state threats, unquestionably committed to NATO, Britain’s nuclear arsenal and the AUKUS pact, and highly critical of Tory defence spending and service personnel reductions, Labour may have little room for nuancing its approach in four critical areas.

Firstly, the UK has bet big on its alliances with the US and France, but if both fall into the hands of far-right leaders in Labour’s first term, how might Labour’s UK respond?

Secondly, the UK, EU and NATO badly need a strategy to get to a sustainable future security architecture for Eurasia. Pushing Russia back as far as possible and hoping for the best is not a strategy that can alleviate suffering and lead to a sustainable security situation. Wars such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict are never ‘won’ at an acceptable cost, and Labour must identify a path towards ending the war in Ukraine in the least bad way possible. It needs a framework for avoiding the risks of successive conflicts in Russia’s neighbourhood, solving regional challenges with coalitions of the willing and encouraging Russia along the path towards decolonising its regional approach.

Thirdly, the Government has also made an uncosted multi-billion pound commitment to the AUKUS partnership over the next two decades, with the ‘fullest Labour support’. Despite Labour’s distinct aversion to the Tories’ ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, with the involvement of major UK companies BAE and Rolls Royce, and the endorsement of Australia’s new Labor government, Lammy and Healey have fallen in behind this major revival of Royal Navy regional presence.

AUKUS and the UK’s military posturing in the Indo-Pacific have not been duly debated. Nor are they complemented by investments in diplomacy, development and trade in a way that could reduce conflict risks and promote stability with China and in its neighbourhood. At best, they send a confusing signal, but at worst they display a military adventurism that could disastrously escalate regional tensions. They also contradict the needed global drive towards non-proliferation and nuclear derisking, and may prove too costly and impractical for the UK’s allies to stay the course.[i] In opposition and government, Labour should be poring over such decisions, demanding genuine strategy over sabre-rattling, and ensuring major UK security investments proportionately and cost-effectively prioritise and address UK citizens’ human security and the climate emergency.

Finally, Labour’s announcement of ‘a new joint FCDO-Home Office State Threats Cell’ could risk perpetuating the kind of ‘securitization’ problems that plagued international relations during the Cold war and the Global War on Terrorism. If 'state threats' imperatives are permitted to override climate and human rights concerns in 'allied' countries, the UK could relive strategic failures from which it should be moving on. Human rights, equality and sustainability are the basis for shared international security and cooperation on global challenges, so to be successful, Labour’s response to state threats must be sufficiently values-driven to be successful. The defence of democracy requires reconstructing a shared politics of hope as much as tough security responses to authoritarian state threats.

Overall, Labour has some refreshing ideas – but it still has time to clarify its values, deepen its thinking, and go back over important assumptions, risks and details in a way that could profoundly benefit people in the UK and overseas after the next general election.


[i] Not least Australia, which has committed an annual $9-12 billion over 30 years.

Larry Attree is a globally recognised expert on peace, conflict and security issues. Former Head of Policy at Saferworld, Larry has over two decades' experience, and helped craft global agreements on peace, governance and development themes including the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, the Busan Partnership and Sustainable Development Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda.

146 views0 comments


bottom of page