Labour foreign policy is a lot like Conservative foreign policy. The Israel–Hamas war is no exception

The conferences showed cross-party consensus on Israel, NATO, Ukraine and China. Differences may only emerge from a second Trump presidency.

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Published 12 October 2023 3 minute READ

Party conferences, especially in election years, tend to be consumed by domestic policy. The UK Conservative and Labour conferences over the past two weeks were no exception – with taxation, public services and infrastructure taking up most of the headline space.

However, Labour’s gathering this week was overshadowed in part by Hamas’s attacks on Israel.

David Lammy emphasized that Labour supported Israel and its right to defend itself, and that Israel’s response must be proportionate and within the bounds of international law

In a Chatham House discussion at the close of Labour’s conference, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy emphasized that Labour supported Israel and its right to defend itself, and that Israel’s response must be proportionate and within the bounds of international law.

He told the audience that Labour wants to see a two-state solution and recognizes ‘the pain of the lack of peace and accommodation between Israel and the Palestinian people’.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, Shadow International Development Secretary Lisa Nandy and Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey made similar comments during the conference. Notably, these were closely in line with statements by the Conservative-led government.   

Labour’s response to the attacks has been unified. This is marked in contrast to the deep divisions over Israel and Palestine – and foreign policy in general – that existed during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as party leader.

Starmer has sought to distance himself from this era, and to emphasize his party’s historic role in NATO, European security and the transatlantic alliance. During his talk with Chatham House, Lammy made similar references to Labour’s heritage in NATO and to the importance of the US–UK relationship.

This shift has produced a relative consensus between the parties on some key foreign policy issues. Some divisions exist – on Europe, migration, and approaches to global economics.

On China, international development, the transatlantic alliance and particularly continued support for Ukraine, differences are matters of tone or degree – not approach

But on China, international development, the transatlantic alliance and particularly continued support for Ukraine, differences are matters of tone or degree – not approach.

Instead, future foreign policy shifts for the UK will likely emerge not from domestic elections but from ones overseas – in the US and in Europe.

Similar notes on the big issues

There are some distinctions between the parties’ foreign policy visions. The most notable is Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ ‘securonomics’ – a kind of Labour answer to Bidenomics, which focuses policy on protecting important supply chains and hints at onshoring critical industries.

But given Labour’s emphasis on fiscal discipline, any such approach will necessarily be somewhat conservative, focused on encouraging (or co-investing with) private investment, not public subsidy programmes of the scale seen in the US.

Formalized security cooperation with the EU, and greater focus on combatting illicit finance, are other notes of difference in Labour’s foreign policy. 

But the parties agree on much more. Lisa Nandy spoke about recapturing the UK’s ‘development superpower’ status, but then so has the current Minister of State for Development, Andrew Mitchell – and both ultimately agree that the UK’s aid budget will only go back to 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income if the fiscal situation allows it. 

Lammy criticised the Conservatives’ inconsistency on China, but both parties outline a similar approach to the country. Each seeks to balance the need to engage with a major power whose actions on climate change, global poverty, and emerging technologies like AI will be significant for the UK, while challenging its record on human rights and protecting UK assets, infrastructure and supply chains from dependency on China.

Labour was initially hesitant to back the current government’s push for a stronger diplomatic and military presence in the Indo-Pacific, but more recently John Healey has committed to build on the ‘tilt’ to the region, and to make the AUKUS pact with Australia and the USA work.

Above all, there is agreement on support for Ukraine, an issue on which there is both marked political and public consensus in the UK

Above all, there is agreement on support for Ukraine, an issue on which there is both marked political and public consensus in the UK. John Healey promised in his conference speech to accelerate planned spending for Ukraine, and ‘no change in Britain’s resolve’.

Of course, Labour’s message is that they would deliver more effectively on these goals if they get into power. And their commitments to improve the relationship with the EU (though not fundamentally rethink it) and drop the government’s contentious Rwanda policy are marked shifts from Conservative policies and tone.

Unanswered questions for the next government 

As of September, the US has directed approximately $46.6 billion in military support to Ukraine. This far exceeds that of other countries – the next highest are Germany’s $18.9 billion and the UK’s $7.3 billion.

Political infighting at the end of September meant the US government avoided a shutdown by passing a spending bill that did not include planned aid to Ukraine. While bipartisan support for Ukraine largely holds in the US now, continued divisions in Congress suggest passing new spending bills on Ukraine may become more challenging.

In Europe too, Slovakia’s new leadership is not supportive of aid to Ukraine, and Hungary’s leader has regularly criticised Kyiv – though European consensus and delivery of military aid continues to hold, and political infighting and rhetoric should not be mistaken for fundamental shifts in policy.

It is above all the prospect of Donald Trump or another Republican candidate aligned with his more isolationist foreign policy winning the next US election that could throw doubt on US support for Ukraine. It would also introduce more unpredictability into the US approach to China.

In such an eventuality, the next UK government might need to play a role in shoring up European unity on Ukraine, and potentially help align approaches to economic security and China, in the face of an unpredictable and distracted US.

When pressed on the implications of a possible second Trump term at the conference, Lammy and other key Labour foreign policy figures were light on details

When pressed on the implications of a possible second Trump term at the conference, Lammy and other key Labour foreign policy figures were light on details. Like the Conservatives, there are worrying signs of a lack of planning for that eventuality.

Finding a Labour foreign policy

Labour’s shift on foreign policy means it now shares some fundamental assumptions with the Conservatives. The party has struggled to set out a genuinely distinct vision for the UK’s place in the world. If anything, its message of ‘reconnecting’ to the wider world arguably harks back to a pre-Brexit image of the UK.

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But the wider world is in a different place from June 2016 and will present significant foreign policy dilemmas for the next government.

Were Labour to enter government and encounter a second Trump presidency, ideological divisions between them would almost certainly make the relationship difficult to navigate, with implications for trade and Europe policy.

But above all America resiling from commitments to Ukraine, and being distracted by unfolding crises in the Middle East would force urgent new foreign policy questions on Labour. The party should begin considering the realities of such a scenario now.