Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s future in the world

Labour has the chance to restate its case as the internationalist party

By Sam Hardy and James Denselow

When we began our work examining the future of Labour’s foreign policy in the early spring of this year, we could not have imagined that, with a UK government in place that seemed more interested in trade and bilateral international relations, by the project’s end the UK would have once again gone to war. While there were no boots on the ground as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libyan intervention highlighted that British governments will continue to have to make decisions on how and when to take part in non-defensive military action.

The Libyan conflict began roughly halfway through our research, which entailed speaking to over 30 current and former Labour cabinet ministers and MPs, foreign policy specialists and journalists. To both those interviewed prior to the start of the Libyan campaign and those interviewed after it we asked the same broad question: ‘Taking into account Labour’s recent record spanning from Kosovo to Iraq, what do you think the party’s position on liberal interventionism should be?’ The response was perhaps surprising given the huge introspection Iraq caused within the party. While the criteria by which we intervene were questioned, as was the means by which it is done, there was almost unanimous support for the principle of intervening to save lives in other sovereign states.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy summed up the mood of interviewees when he said that ‘in extraordinary circumstances and as a last resort’ the UK should be ‘a force for good through the occasional use of legal state violence’. And as the Labour party found out in 2003 there is also an obligation on the government to explain why Britain must act. Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, told us that ‘liberal interventionist proponents need to offer leadership, make a case and explain the counterfactual argument that where we didn’t intervene, say in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, there are consequences of not doing things.’

But while the moral argument for intervening on occasions may be there, interviewees for the project were also clear in calling for Labour to take the time in opposition to comprehensively review what the party sees as the criteria for intervention – to set out clear rules against which calls for intervention can be judged. While Colonel Gaddafi’s gruesome and explicit threats to the people of Benghazi clearly necessitated action, not all cases are as clear-cut. Linked to this point was a feeling stressed by interviewees that we need to make absolutely sure that when the Labour party addresses the issue, both in action and in language, it is strictly in terms of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, thus putting an end to any association with the toxic doctrine and language of regime-change.

Our research revealed several interesting trends, which Labour may want pursue. The government’s multilateral moment in Libya seems already to have passed as it hangs to the sidelines of Europe. Labour has the opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the government and lead the political agenda on foreign policy, underlining its credentials as the internationalist party in British politics. Labour should clearly set out the criteria for the future of ‘humanitarian intervention’. This is natural territory for the party and this, perhaps more than anything else, would help remake the case for implementing the Responsibility to Protect, ensuring it becomes a central plank of the emerging new world order rather than left on the shelf to gather dust like too many UN documents before it.


Sam Hardy and James Denselow are authors of the forthcoming Progress pamphlet The Future of Labour’s Foreign Policy


Photo: fsse8info

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Sam Hardy and James Denselow

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