Nandy talking to the Red Wall – Labour’s new foreign policy

Dave Kellaway analyses Labour's approach to foreign policy under the watch of Lisa Nandy

Following a credible third place finish (17%) in the Labour leadership race to replace Jeremy Corbyn, Lisa Nandy was rewarded with a top job of shadow foreign secretary in the new Starmer team. On 31st March she gave a keynote speech to the prestigious international relations institute, Chatham House, where she outlined the political framework for Labour’s foreign policy. The main message was to draw a clear line against the most progressive elements of Corbyn’s approach. Her speech was abridged slightly for an article in Prospect magazine on April 15th. The title and the first paragraph encapsulate much of her argument:

How Labour will root a new foreign policy in the home front.

After decades of fatalism about globalisation, Britain is left asking: who in the world are we? Let’s spell out the links between day-to-day lives and international alliances, and take back control.”

Nandy even references the great revolutionary CLR James – “Genuine internationalism, (…) must be based on the national scene” in an attempt to give some progressive veneer to her resetting of Labour’s positions. She plays on the ambiguity of the ‘national scene’ to suggest we should base our approach on the concerns of British people who have been made insecure economically, ecologically and militarily as a result of globalisation and Tory governments. At times she suggests the people she is talking about are those who have been left behind, working people, and not the rich but the notion is not very precise.

When James talked about the national scene he merely meant, as Trotsky argued in History of the Russian Revolution, that each national situation is a unique combination of the international elements or processes. Obviously you have to educate and agitate for internationalism among working people in a given national state. He meant it geographically, he never ever based his internationalism on national interests or the interests of a native working class. James was a theorist of the anti-colonial revolution so his writings define oppressed nations differently from the colonising ones. Internationalism for a worker or peasant a country like Bolivia involves defence of the nation against colonialists in a way that a worker in England never has to.

Like all classically trained Marxists he started from the interests of the international working class. In practice this meant that he defended Lenin, Luxembourg and the other minorities inside the Second International who opposed the reformist leadership’s national unity with their own ruling classes to join in the slaughter of working people in the First World War. More recently it means a refusal to support the British state, led by Tony Blair, when it went to war in Iraq. Internationalism then did not base itself on the home front just listening to one group of workers’ views but recognised that British and Iraqi workers had a common interest in stopping the war.

Nandy hardly mentions the interests or needs of workers outside Britain. It is always about the impact of globalisation on people here. No surprise that this overlaps with much of the Brexit view of the world and it is no coincidence that she uses the phrase, take back control, when proposing her new policy. For her the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory are all about a rejection of globalisation and laissez faire. Anti-migrant rhetoric and racism are evacuated from reality. The starting point is not how Labour’s foreign policy can help unite working people across borders or reduce national divisions but rather how we can make British people feel more ‘secure’. Unsurprisingly the ending of free movement in Europe is not considered to be a step backwards in bringing workers together and the pro-migrant policy from the last Labour conference is ignored.

For the shadow foreign secretary the main problem is the gulf between ordinary people’s concerns and foreign policy which is conducted by and elite. This populist tinge leaves out a serious political discussion of what we should recognise as ordinary people’s interest. It allows her to adapt Labour’s policy to backward views. If some Labour voters in marginal seats have anti-migrant or anti-development aid views should official Labour policy just concede to them? On the other hand this method is mixed with vague feed good statements about the British people wanting a better, faire foreign policy where it plays a leadership role in world affairs. She cites the British Foreign Policy Group annual survey but exaggerates the degree of consensus. The report actually records a great degree of division – hardly surprising given the Johnson led offensive through Brexit and beyond.

Although much is made of how foreign policy has failed ordinary people Nandy throughout uses ‘we’, ‘Britain’ and the ‘nation’ completely uncritically. So Labour’s new policy will be based on a better deal for security for ‘our people’ at home and this will be a basis for a more self-confident Britain (whatever that means) internationally so ‘we’ can play a leadership role in making a fairer world. Global capital is criticised such as the tech firms paying hardly any taxes. Local, British business is seen as a natural ally, as though exploitation is only carried out by the multinationals. Low wages, bad conditions, anti-union action and zero contracts are used by small and large British companies -“those incredible bricks-and-mortar businesses who are rooted in our communities”. The conflict between these companies and the international corporations is exaggerated and the complementarity is downplayed.

Nobody denies that global capital is a major cause of working people’s insecurity, exploitation and poverty. Nandy correctly links it with the increased floods or the loss of steelworkers’ jobs. But building internationalism and links with workers suffering from the same conditions in other countries is left out. Instead a social democratic/nationalist/populist opposition is suggested based on vague values of fairness and involving the voices of the left behind.

Proclaiming full support for NATO and ‘our’ armed forces is foregrounded as well as outdoing the Tories in maintaining military spending. No hint of the review into defence strategy that was in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto. There is an almost frenetic energy to show that all the Corbynist deviations from social democratic bipartisan foreign policy have been eliminated. Labour’s parliamentary vote on serving soldiers immunity from prosecution, the flag waving at every opportunity and the enthusiasm for Veterans Day celebrations all fit into the same logic.

Comparing and contrasting with the final section of the 2019 Labour manifesto is illuminating. Even the title ‘A New Internationalism’ tells a different story to Nandy’s retreat to ‘basing foreign policy on the home front’. The manifesto includes support for NATO, Trident, the arms industry and sustaining the armed forces. But at the same time there is also much on reviewing defence, multilateralism, active support for resolving conflict and emphasising fairer pay and conditions for soldiers. Given where the Corbyn project started from this much is unsurprising but there are a whole series of progressive proposals that Nandy appears to have dumped:

  • acceptance that there is a problematic colonial legacy and a promised audit
  • human rights –strong policies to defend them everywgere
  • critical of failed military interventions
  • war power act to give parliament greater control over prime ministers taking the country to war
  • judge led inquiry into Britain’s role in US led rendition and torture
  • apologising and dealing with historic colonial crimes by Britian like Amritsar massacre, give Chagos islanders right to have their country back
  • stop arms sales to Israel if used to oppress Palestinian human rights
  • support for two state solution and recognising Palestine statehood
  • aid programme commitment to maintain 0.7% of GNP
  • cheap medicine for global south

Given the pandemic it is astonishing that Nandy did not make a Labour commitment to lifting any patent regulations so that poorer nations can have easy access to vaccines. While the manifesto is not as radical as it might be it is better than Nandy’s positions. Its political framework is much closer to an internationalism that does not just listen to Labour’s lost ‘Red Wall’ voters but engages much more with the needs and interests of working people across the world.

While socialists would go further than the manifesto does on questions like Trident or NATO we should certainly defend these gains of the Corbyn project against Nandy’s reactionary, bipartisan line.

Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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