The Lammy Doctrine: The thinking behind Labour’s ‘restorative’ 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 suppose tank Chatham Home. It was his most complete intervention on international coverage to this point. Addressing the assembled fellows, Lammy laid the groundwork for a way Labour would function on the worldwide stage post-2024. There have been indicators of a brand new diplomatic departure; Starmerism, it appeared, was going world.

Overseas coverage has not all the time been snug territory for Labour. The social gathering is arguably nonetheless scarred by its function within the Iraq battle, which noticed many develop suspicious about worldwide, and significantly navy, alliances. In the long run, the legacy of Iraq contributed significantly to the election of NATO critic Jeremy Corbyn as Labour chief in 2015. Subsequently, social gathering splits over international coverage have been a mainstay of his premiership, notably over the choice to increase airstrikes to Syria.

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 we have now simply seen play out within the tank trauma skilled by German chancellor Olaf Scholz, a member of the Social Democratic Get together (SPD). Underneath the burden of worldwide stress, Scholz initially shied away from approving German tank deliveries to Ukraine, partly, as a result of escalation would possibly create issues within the extra pacifist, leftist faction of his social gathering. 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 determination 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 draw back from an lively function on the worldwide stage, Lammy despatched a message to those that should still doubt Labour’s geopolitical positioning. “From the start of this disaster by means of to the latest determination to ship Challenger tanks, the federal government has had Labour’s whole help [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 commit to hold regular intensive bilateral meetings between the UK and the EU as foreign secretary. Furthermore, he made the case for a new defence security pact with Europe, 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. Rubbishing 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 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 now 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. 

Ultimately, 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, Labour wants to repair regional relations with the EU while pursuing active internationalism as a partner in a revivified NATO. The Lammy Doctrine, you could call it.