The future of the left since 1884

One nation in the world: What is the left’s story on foreign policy?

Labour only wins big when it manages to root its progressive aspirations in the national story. But in 1945, 1964 and 1997, Labour leaders did not simply recapture the flag, they offered a convincing narrative about how Britain could respond...


Labour only wins big when it manages to root its progressive aspirations in the national story. But in 1945, 1964 and 1997, Labour leaders did not simply recapture the flag, they offered a convincing narrative about how Britain could respond to a changing international environment, whether through winning the peace, catching up with continental Europe, or taming globalization.

Today’s political cycle is once again being framed by arguments about international affairs, with Europe, immigration and arguments about the use of force increasingly intruding into the bread and butter discussions about the economy, the cost of living and the distribution of the proceeds of growth.  After several false starts, David Cameron has settled a story about his political project that resonates with his party and offers an account of a changing world, the idea of the ‘global race’.

Does the left have a story on foreign policy that fits with its domestic narrative? It is right to respond that Britain’s future lies not in a race to the bottom, but rather one to the top, but Ed Miliband has neither developed an adequate critique of Cameron, nor put forward an alternative Labour story.

As a result, Labour too often comes across as oscillating between the defensive and the opportunistic. The combination of Blue Labour, euro-realism and the opposition to the war in Syria have led some to portray Labour as isolationist and pacifist. On the other hand, in the absence of a wider narrative, when Labour acts out of principle on foreign policy – as it did on Syria and the EU budget – it faces charges of cynicism.

It is time for the Labour party to tell a more positive story about what it wants for Britain in a changing world. The unifying theme should be an attempt to develop a rooted internationalism that seeks growth, fair rules, social cohesion and self-government in a world where power is flowing from the west to the east.

An account of tomorrow’s world rather than an escape from New Labour

The foreign policy debates in both the Conservative and Labour parties have been defined more by arguments about the past than visions of the future.  The Conservative party’s obsession with Brussels has gone viral. But while the Tories seem doomed to re-enact their previous divisions on Europe, Labour’s ability to engage with the future is hampered by its desire to escape from its own history on Iraq. However, while we must learn the lessons of Iraq, they must not blind us to the challenges of a future world where the rise of Beijing is more of a challenge than the regulatory creep of Brussels or the imperial urge of Washington’s neo-cons.

The last Labour government came to power at the apex of western power, where globalization was driven by western capital and governments were focused on deregulation at home and building multilateral regimes globally. The Iraq war was – in many ways – the swan song of that western-led world order. The 2008 financial crisis showed the dangers of deregulation and has accelerated the development of a new era of globalization, where capital is concentrated in non-western powers such as China. The re-emergence of non-western powers has gridlocked global multilateral institutions – from the WTO to climate talks – and come at the same moment that a war-weary United States is increasingly withdrawing from global affairs.

The Arab uprisings have convulsed the Middle East into a regional sectarian conflict and highlighted a global political awakening that embraces democracy but is about emancipation from the west. And the euro crisis is transforming the political and economic order of the European Union. Labour embraced Europe as a response to globalization but it has too often been seen as globalization on steroids with its strict rules on austerity, the facilitation of the free movement of labour and its hollowing out of national politics.

Ed Miliband must offer a vision for how Britain can respond to huge changes in the world. He needs to explain how Britain can prepare for Chinese-led globalization, how a reformed Europe can help Britain succeed, and how we should respond to the new turmoil and openings in Middle East.

Preparing Britain for China-led globalisation

In the 1990s, centre-left parties on both sides of the Atlantic saw it as their role to develop a progressive response to western-led globalization. Like Bill Clinton and Larry Summers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made it their mission to embrace globalization but mitigate its wage-suppressing impact through tax credits and credit-fuelled growth. In 1997, Tony Blair wrapped this up in an inclusive national story that united different ethnicities and faiths in a progressive nation-building project that celebrated common values, creativity and connectedness to the world, including through our membership of the European Union.

Ed Miliband has an opportunity to map out the core dynamics of the new wave of globalization and explain how Britain should respond. Rather than a world of benign networks where everyone lives in the cloud, Britain must prepare for a world of economic competition where size and power matter, and where state capitalist economies such as China will seek to use their enormous markets and political power to create an unlevel playing field.  Labour also needs to acknowledge that – although globalization has benefited the British economy in the aggregate –it has speeded up the deindustrialization of the British economy and has costs jobs and wage growth for many.

In developing a progressive response to this, he can learn from the experience of Europe’s global achievers – including Germany and Scandinavia – who have thrived as a result of rather than despite their mixed economies. He can also learn from an Obama administration that has abandoned Clintonian consensus on globalization. Obama’s economic advisers are exploring government policies to support America’s reviving manufacturing and export machines. They have abandoned ‘benign neglect’ of their currency, are looking at how to use energy to reinvent their economic model, and seeking reindustrialization and export-led growth through a new generation of ‘high-quality’ trade deals with rich countries, including Europe and Japan.

On the other hand David Cameron has done little to reinvent the 1990s approach to globalization. Although he talks a lot about China, he has not explained how the rise of state capitalist powers change the dynamics of the global economy. His global race narrative conjures up a less than benign global environment but does little to explain how Britain can prepare for it – beyond working harder and abandoning talk of human rights on trade missions to Asia. Cameron’s neo-Darwinian rhetoric implies it is not just countries but individuals that are being challenged to ‘sink or swim’. Most importantly, Cameron has no explanation of how a middle-sized economy like Britain will get leverage over continental-sized powers, which links to the second theme: Europe.

A new approach to Europe

Ed Miliband has an opportunity to explain how a reformed Europe can be a passport to success in this new world. Rather than defending the status-quo, Labour has an opportunity to critique it and offer a new reform agenda for Europe – a post-crisis economic growth and social policy; a new approach to migration; and an agenda of self-government in Europe.

Unlike the Tories who just want to stand aside from Europe’s big debates – and use the opportunity to repatriate powers and deprive workers of rights – Labour can set out a constructive agenda to fix the system, try to defend its red lines by keeping Britain in the room, and pushing for a leading role in a multi-speed Europe rather than 3rd class membership of the EU.

In order to achieve that, Ed Miliband will first need to settle the referendum issue. He has been right so far both to resist calls for an immediate referendum, which would smack of political opportunism, and right to criticise David Cameron’s strategy of renegotiation followed by a vote in 2017.   However, very few people – even in the shadow cabinet – believe that Miliband will be able to stick to his current policy through the rigours of a European election, let alone a general election campaign. Labour should commit to holding an in-out referendum at such a time that there is a new treaty which transfers sovereignty from the UK to the EU. Labour would put itself on the side of public opinion and be in a strong position to mercilessly go after the Conservative party for putting party before country and being frozen and incapable because of their divisions.

Labour must set out an account of Europe as a multiplier of growth in a multipolar world, rather than a conveyer belt for austerity. It must make common cause with leaders in other countries in agreeing a strategy to boost demand by moderating austerity by changing the rules of the euro to facilitate social investment. This could include a European strategy for reindustrialization by extending the single market to the services, digital and energy sectors, as well reforming the EU budget to make investments in research and development (R&D), infrastructure and energy. And in order to get access to global markets, it should pioneer a new generation of trade agreements with countries such as the US and Japan to drive up standards in the global economy and level the playing field with China.

Labour’s biggest challenges are in the area of migration. A lot of the response is necessarily domestic, including the agenda of boosting the living wage and addressing pressures that new migrants place on public services directly. But there must also be a European strategy of pushing for changes in the rules on claiming social security so that families cannot claim benefits from a member states where they are not resident. In addition, in order stamp out the fear of ‘benefit tourism’, the Labour party could explore whether EU governments could issue European social insurance cards to citizens moving to other member states. In the medium term, if it is possible to track expenditure of public services, the UK could investigate if the EU budget could be used to help ease pressure on public services by intra-EU migration.

Labour must also claim the mantle of self-government. It should push for a chamber of national parliaments to observe European decision making, observer status for non-euro countries in eurozone meetings, and for sunset clauses in EU legislation so that it can be repealed if it no longer serves its purpose. However, the key is to reframe the debate so it is not just a question about a single one-off vote about being in the EU, but rather about the ability of governments to be sovereign over their own affairs. It is worth talking about the example of Norway whose own parliament labeled Norway’s non-membership of the EU as  “a democratic disaster”. Because Norway cannot afford economically to be excluded from Europe’s single market, it is bound to pay into the EU budget and adopt nearly all EU laws but has not role in making them.

Intervention after the Iraq War

Ed Miliband’s decision to vote against military action in parliament at the end of August should be one of the crowning moments of his leadership. It is very rare for an opposition party to have an impact on their own country’s foreign policy – let alone the wider world. However, Labour got very little credit for a vote which opened up a path for an extraordinary turnaround in global politics.

Miliband should have done a more robust job of explaining that the Syria vote was not about Britain or the Labour party turning its back on the world – but rather the heart of a more calibrated and effective international diplomatic strategy.

Getting back on the front foot on these issues will require a bigger attempt to explain Labour’s vision for the world. This is partly about the question of military intervention. It is right for Labour to explain that the bar has been raised for British military action and that the public expect a more thorough account of the consequences of action and inaction.

However, to have real credibility, Miliband should have spent some time setting the decision in parliament into a broader strategy for addressing the tragedy in Syria and its dangerous spill over consequences in the Middle East.

The core elements of the Labour approach are clear and have been born out by events: exhausting every avenue for a multilateral approach before acting unilaterally; using diplomacy with unfriendly as well as friendly nations and exhausting that before thinking about military action; and linking the chemical weapons deal and the Iran deal to a Geneva II conference or an alternative structure.

However Ed Miliband has not yet articulated them or linked his approach to a region trapped in an ever-escalating cycle of sectarianism and violence to his wider international vision. It is now high time he set out a policy programme of de-escalation for the Middle East, and how it draws on his vision of diplomacy, multilateralism and collective security, as well as how this internationalism dovetails with an approach of being at the heart of Europe, rather than sulking on its sidelines.

The global face of ‘one nation’: a strategy of rooted internationalism

The world has changed dramatically since Labour last won power in 1997 –even since it lost power in 2010 – both in terms of the policy environment and public attitudes. The Labour party has not yet managed to find a compelling voice on these issues. It is split between the New Labour tribes of globalisers, liberal interventionists and pro-Europeans, and the Blue Labour apostles of localism and disengagement.

If Ed Miliband is to present himself as a credible prime minister in waiting, he will need to craft a story which makes sense of the world that he will be governing in, as well as an aspirational account of what a Labour government might seek to do.

He urgently needs to develop a realistic account of the opportunities and challenges of China-led globalisation, of a reformed Europe as a platform for achieving it, and of his agenda for dealing with regional instability in the Middle East. Taken together, these strands can form the basis of a new approach of rooted internationalism, which could help Labour heal the wounds of Iraq and allow him to take the fight to David Cameron.

This article originally appeared in the Fabian pamphlet  ‘One nation in the world: A new foreign policy for the left’ edited by Marcus Roberts and Ulrich Ulrich Storck.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.