The Lammy Doctrine: The thinking behind Labour’s ‘interest-driven’ foreign policy

Labour has a brand new mental framework for British international coverage and spearheading the cost is David Lammy. 

On Tuesday, the shadow international secretary delivered a landmark speech to the assume tank Chatham Home. It was his most complete intervention thus far. Addressing the assembled fellows, Lammy laid the groundwork for the way Labour would function on the worldwide stage post-2024. There have been alerts of a brand new diplomatic departure; Starmerism, it appeared, was going international.

International coverage has not all the time been snug territory for Labour. The occasion is arguably nonetheless scarred by its function within the Iraq conflict when Tony Blair was prime minister, which noticed many within the occasion develop suspicious about worldwide, and significantly army, alliances. The legacy of Iraq contributed vastly to the election of NATO critic Jeremy Corbyn as Labour chief. Occasion splits over international coverage have been then a mainstay of his premiership, notably over the choice to increase airstrikes to Syria in 2015.

Taking a broader view, Labour’s international coverage difficulties mirror a European pattern. On the continent, social democratic events are equally divided on the query of geopolitical technique. It’s one thing now we have simply seen play out within the tank trauma skilled by German chancellor Olaf Scholz, a member of the Social Democratic Occasion (SPD). Below the burden of worldwide strain, Scholz initially shied away from approving German tank deliveries to Ukraine, partially, as a result of escalation would possibly create issues within the extra pacifist, leftist faction of his occasion. An anti-militarist line geared towards peace initiatives stays prevalent in SPD, simply because it does in Labour. 


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Since changing into Labour chief in 2020, Starmer has been decided to place any query of Labour’s dedication to worldwide alliances firmly behind him. Consciously contradicting the mental framing of the Corbyn period, beneath Starmer, Labour has backed each choice the federal government has made on Ukraine, together with sending tanks, and even threatened NATO-critical MPs with suspension. Now with Lammy’s speech on Tuesday, we see Labour’s newest geopolitical assertion of intent.

Reaffirming that Labour wouldn’t shrink back from an lively function on the worldwide stage, Lammy despatched a message to those that should doubt Labour’s geopolitical positioning. “From the start of this disaster by way of to the latest choice to ship Challenger tanks, the federal government has had Labour’s whole assist [over Ukraine”, Lammy said. He added: “It was a Labour Foreign Secretary who was the driving force behind the creation of NATO 70 years ago. Today, as then, Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakeable”.

Labour would also try to actively rebuild its relationship with Europe. A Labour government would “cement our traditional friendships” by pursuing close economic and diplomatic ties with the EU, Lammy said. Of course, there was no suggestion that Labour would take Britain back into the single market or the customs union; but Lammy did committee to hold regular intensive bilateral meetings between the UK and the EU as foreign secretary. He made the case for a new defence security pact with the EU, arguing that routine, structured discussions would allow the UK to partner with European states in matters of organised crime and cybersecurity.

As with so much else with Labour policy at the moment, Labour’s thinking here is consciously orientated to exploit perceived Conservative weaknesses. In a message to those who have labelled Starmer too “scared” to discuss Europe, Lammy went on the assault; he rubbished the “ideological leadership and reckless choices” that left Britain disconnected post-Brexit. Lammy said that Labour would “fix the Tories’ bad Brexit deal” and pursue a new defence security pact with the trading bloc. 

Lammy even promised that a closer and friendlier relationship with the EU would actually deliver on the 2016 Leave campaign’s promise to “take back control”.

It is a sign of confidence in the Labour camp, that leading figures now willingly appropriate populist slogans in policy-heavy speeches. Having spent much of 2022 appearing as serious and managerial as possible, Starmer has begun 2023 flipping through the pages of the populist playbook. First there was the Take Back Control Bill, promised in Starmer’s New Year’s address which made a clear link between regional devolution and Brexit; then shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves appropriated the Trumpian slogan “drain the swamp” to elucidate Labour’s approach to sleaze; and now here was Lammy, dressing Labour’s diplomatic pitch in the discursive trappings of Brexit “control”. 

In some senses, Lammy’s allusion to the populist Brexit campaign sat uneasily, perhaps even counterintuitively, within an address that was largely about restoring the UK’s international standing and rebuilding multilateral institutions. But Labour hopes that the vow to “take back control” may serve to remind voters that the Conservatives have, in many ways, failed to live up to the grand promises of the Brexit campaign. The reference was intended to underline the core theme of the speech: that it was active pragmatism on the world stage, not dogmatic adherence to Brexit purity or Corbyn’s implicit isolationism, that would deliver for Britain. 

We saw this moreover in Lammy’s rhetoric on China. Amid ongoing Conservative tussles over whether China should be considered a “competitor” or a “threat”, with ministers vacillating not always nimbly between the two options under Truss and Sunak, Lammy was plain enough. He argued that the rise of China had inspired “global competition” which the UK can counter by re-engaging with multilateral organisations and leveraging our soft power. He criticised the government’s “divided and inconsistent” approach to the Asian power under consecutive prime ministers.  

On UK-US relations too, Lammy supported calls from US senators and the Atlantic Council think tank for the US, Britain and the EU to join forces to create a Transatlantic Anti-Corruption Council. Under Corbyn, Labour was frequently characterised by critics as being too openly critical of America, Lammy has therefore consciously sought to repel such accusations. Of course, the current occupant of the White House in Joe Biden will make a strong US-UK relationship more palatable among Labour party figureheads. 

In these ways, Lammy’s landmark speech underlines that Labour is as much concerned with the political framing when it comes to policy, as they are with substance. The meat of Lammy’s proposals is arguably not new — the active, interest-driven approach to geopolitics bears comparison to what David Cameron called the “global race”, or even what Theresa May called “global Britain”. 

But still haunted by Corbyn’s political missteps, Labour feels that their new “realistic” approach to foreign policy will bare electoral fruit, taking advantage of post-Brexit disenchantments on both sides. Condemning Government belligerence and perceived Corbyniyte inwardness in equal turn, Starmer wants to repair regional relations with the EU while pursuing active internationalism as a partner in a revivified NATO.