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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