Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

One Nation Labour is lacking a narrative on foreign policy

In October 2011, I took part in a university debate in support of the motion ‘This house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government’. The speakers ranged from cabinet ministers to lowly students.

Our opponents were united. Labour caused the crash and piled up the debt. The coalition government is fixing that mess in the national interest. Every speaker stood up and said exactly the same thing in a slightly different way. It was a lesson in message discipline.

Our side were all over the place. We did not know if we were defending the last government or apologising. We did not know if we should be trying to beat the government on the economy or change the subject. We would try one approach until the next speaker took up a completely new line of attack. Predictably, we were roundly defeated.

Things have improved. The cost of living crisis has given us a domestic narrative of our own. Were the same debate to be held today, a different outcome would be likely. However, if the debate were to be changed to ‘This house has no confidence in the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s government’, we would still struggle.

Despite some ridicule, people understand the concept of the global race. The glib response that it should be a race to the top not a race to the bottom raises the question as to the distinctive nature of the Labour party offering on foreign policy. It is clear what we are against: intervention in Syria, a global race to the bottom, any cut in the aid budget. But what are we for?

This is not because there is a shortage of foreign policy thinking on the left. The latest contribution comes in the form of a slim pamphlet from the Fabian Society. It is intelligent, it is thoughtful and it serves as an excellent appendix to the recent volume edited by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kerns, ‘Influencing Tomorrow’. The next Labour government will not want for potential policies in this area.

What is lacking is a narrative. There is no sense of a guiding vision. As such, the eager, intelligent foot soldiers are left firing in different directions. A unique story about the fundamental ways in which the world is changing around us and Britain’s place in the new global order would allow contributors to pamphlets such as this to focus.

We have great potential to articulate this vision. The left is a movement born out of a belief in a shared humanity above all else – regardless of wealth, gender or nationality. We are also in a strong position to tell a distinctively internationalist story; we are not a party hamstrung by Little Englanders. But it is not enough to affirm our internationalism.

In the coming months it is critical that the party leadership starts to articulate an analysis of the world in which we live. The closest we have come to a coherent vision is Liam Byrne’s suggestion of ‘turning to face the east’. But the parameters for innovative policy thinking must be set at the top. Ed Miliband must begin to spell out a Labour party view of Britain’s place in a changing and challenging world. Only then will we have the criteria by which to judge the various worthy and worthwhile suggestions in this pamphlet.


Adam Tyndall sits on the advisory council of Future Foreign Policy. He tweets @AdamTyndall


Photo: Josh McKible

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Adam Tyndall

is a member of the Labour party and tweets @AdamTyndall


Leave a Reply to Anonymous Cancel reply

  • Tyndall rightly demands a narrative. But he ends up advocating a list of policies (be they from Byrne or Alexander).

    The Tory narrative is primarily economic in character (foreign policy = getting into new markets (aside from in the pesky EU)) – a crude narrative of “let’s make money” that can only make “Johnny Foreigner” suspicious of Albion.

    For Labour, yes, we need the intelligent economic policy of say Liam Byrne (cities working together) – a narrative of “global growth and equality through collaboration”. But we should skip what Tyndall calls the “glib” narrative of a “race to the top”. For one thing, the idea of a race flagrantly contradicts the idea of collaboration. Rather we want to be in the best team – earning our place through being the best team-player. This means unlearning the perfidiousness of Albion that is our imperial inheritance (e.g. by compensating the Caribbean for slavery).

    Labour also needs a political narrative that has moved on from Bush Sr’s ‘new global order’. Blair’s advocacy of good governance and the rule of law gets to the heart of the problems of Ukraine, Syria, Pakistan, China… indeed every state actor and its relationship to internal and external opposition. Turning this narrative into policies means reviewing the working of global and international institutions (all of them – including on climate change) and linking the political AND the economic narratives (e.g. cities working together for better governance).

  • I disagree. It has a clear “narrative” I work in marketing and I am bored by the word. How about words like policy and ideas. Miliband’s vision is clear. Only invade or bomb countries when they are invading or bombing you (or are about to) and you are absolutely sure that your intervention will make things better. It is linked to Francis of Assisi and the UN Charter. Anyone who still thinks the Invasion of Iraq was a good idea needs to see a therapist. Thank God Ed and not David won. We would be a hopelessly divided party devoid of a “narrative” for anyone other than new Labour Britpop nostalgists. Get with the Now guys. .

  • The Iraq War was declared over in 2003. 11 years on the war is still raging. Al Quaida run Falluja and the Christian Patriarch in the country has advised all Christians to leave Iraq. 2m refugees and maybe 1m dead Nice work Blair.

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