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U.K. : Can Labour Elevate Britain’s Global Standing?

Labour’s win brings a different political reality… and a recognition that new ideas are needed in a world much changed since 2010.

4 mins read
Keir Starmer [Photo: Chris Floyd]

It is a mark of the significance of this general election that a result predicted for months still brings with it a sense of uncertainty about what will follow.

On paper, there is little difference between most elements of Labour and Conservative foreign policy. The greatest differences are on Europe and migration; on China, Ukraine, the rest, it is astonishingly similar. But there will be early decisions that will set the tone of the Labour government’s approach to Britain’s place in the world and begin to fill in the questions carefully left blank in the campaign.

More than that, though, whether Labour improves Britain’s standing in the world will depend on whether it can fix the UK’s problems at home, including its failure to achieve growth in productivity, its patchy education system, regional divergences and failing health system.

US and NATO

A first chance will come just five days after the election with the NATO summit in Washington, DC. Starmer will have a chance to repeat his support for Ukraine where he has echoed his Conservative predecessors. But he will be under pressure to clarify exactly when Labour intends to spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence (up from around 2.3 per cent now), a point left open so far.

What is more, the US landscape has changed since he made that pledge. The evident fragility of President Joe Biden has injected new uncertainty into the presidential race. For the moment, it makes a Trump presidency more likely. The decision for Starmer is how much to try to persuade the US – as well as other wavering members of NATO – to remain a defender of Ukraine, on the grounds not just of sovereignty but European security.

Europe

There will be a second chance on 18 July when the prime minister will host around 50 European leaders for the European Political Community meeting. This is not just a chance to sound statesmanlike and to assert the UK’s interest in liberal values (including rule of law, a reputation strained by government manoeuvres since Brexit). It will be a first chance to sound out European leaders on the details of what a closer relationship might look like – as Starmer has said he wants.

Some cooperation on defence, agreements on trade of food and animal products, possible extensions of mobility to some professionals and creatives – this is easier, though not entirely straightforward – territory for both sides. But EU leaders will press the new government on why it recoiled before the election from European musings about the chance of freer movement for young people between the EU and Britain.

Starmer will also have to work out how to position his left of centre government in a Europe showing rising support for the right. He will also have to explain, given that he has vowed to jettison Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda plan for dealing with illegal migration, what will replace it – all the more as alternative approaches will likely require cooperating with European countries facing similar problems.

Gaza

Starmer chose before the election to support Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of Hamas’s 7 October attacks. That was a similar position to that of Sunak’s government. But it came at greater cost to Starmer than to Sunak, given the heat of the opposition among Labour supporters to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

He will be under pressure at home to toughen the stance against Israel, and will want to test the UK’s influence with the US to increase pressure on the Israeli government. He may, however, be confronted with the fact that UK influence on such questions is slender, even though its own actions do carry symbolic weight. Britain’s greatest use may be in convening discussions among the wide range of regional players where it does have influence.

China

No immediate decision looms on China, where Labour has set out a similar careful balance (trade, talk on global problems but defend the UK against threats) as did Sunak. Indeed Labour has proposed an audit of the UK’s China links, possibly to begin in the first 100 days of government.

For all that an ‘audit’ sounds like a technical exercise, the big question will be how far the UK can skirt US pressure to align with its trade measures against the country. The chill between China and the US has deepened further during this year, over trade and over China’s aggression in the South China Sea, as well as more recently, its support for Russia. Starmer may find that he is forced to take sides more than is convenient for his pursuit of economic growth.

Climate

The first difficult decision may come over whether to welcome imports of cheap Chinese electric vehicles and solar panels. Rachel Reeves, now chancellor, speaking at Chatham House on the day the election was called, said that cheapness was not a case for buying the products in itself. But it can be if growth is your goal – and meeting climate change goals. Labour still needs to resolve this dilemma. And it will need to if it is to play the leadership role on climate it says it seeks.

While immediate international risks will draw the government’s attention, 2023 was the hottest year on record. Climate change will have significant consequences on migration, food prices and conflict, and a government which has promised to deliver security for voters at home will need to play its role in addressing it.

Improvement within the UK

Starmer has campaigned for weeks in front of a thicket of red signs saying ‘Change’. Influence in the world is underpinned by a country’s performance at home, both the admirability and stability of its political arrangements, and its economic growth.

At the end of fourteen years, the Conservatives failed to deliver on both these fronts. They paid for it in diminished influence for the UK abroad, and they have paid for it electorally now, with what looks set to be the worst result in the party’s history.

If this is to be the new era that Labour promises, it will have to show that it has answers to the UK’s enduring problems: lack of productivity growth, education and health systems under strain, lack of investment in infrastructure from electricity and power to 5G, and regional and social inequalities.

Labour’s win is not only a new phase in British politics – a different political reality after over a decade of Conservative dominance – but it brings with it a recognition that new ideas are needed in a world much changed since 2010. Many of the UK’s challenges are often attributed to Brexit, and while that has not helped, there are deeper problems that plagued the country in the Conservative era (and other similar democracies too).

Better answers are needed to the continued economic malaise following the 2008 crash, the capacity of the state to manage growing global risks like climate and COVID, to say nothing of the return to war in Europe and the Middle East. There is a sense from this huge victory that it is time for someone else to try to find them.

Bronwen Maddox

Bronwen Maddox, Director and Chief Executive of Chatham House since August 2022, previously led the Institute for Government and Prospect magazine. She held senior roles at The Times and the Financial Times and was an investment analyst at Kleinwort Benson Securities. Bronwen is a Visiting Professor at King's College London, Honorary Governor of Ditchley, and a council member of Research England. She holds a degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from St John’s College, Oxford.

Olivia O’Sullivan

Olivia O’Sullivan, Director of the UK in the World Programme at Chatham House, has over a decade of experience in international development and foreign policy in the UK government. She has worked in the Department for International Development, Cabinet Office, and led the Open Innovation Team's foreign policy efforts. Her work includes managing the 2021 Integrated Review's expert engagement and the UK's response to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

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