The Lammy Doctrine: The thinking behind Labour’s ‘restorative’ foreign policy

Labour has a new intellectual framework for British foreign policy and spearheading the charge is David Lammy. 

On Tuesday, the shadow foreign secretary delivered a landmark speech to the think tank Chatham House. It was his most comprehensive intervention on foreign policy to date. Addressing the assembled fellows, Lammy laid the groundwork for how Labour would operate on the global stage post-2024. There were signals of a new diplomatic departure; Starmerism, it seemed, was going global.

Foreign policy has not always been comfortable territory for Labour. The party is arguably still scarred by its role in the Iraq war, which saw many grow suspicious about international, and particularly military, alliances. In the end, the legacy of Iraq contributed greatly to the election of NATO critic Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015. Subsequently, party splits over foreign policy were a mainstay of his premiership, notably over the decision to extend airstrikes to Syria.

Taking a broader view, Labour’s foreign policy difficulties reflect a European trend. On the continent, social democratic parties are equally divided on the question of geopolitical strategy. It is something we have just seen play out in the tank trauma experienced by German chancellor Olaf Scholz, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Under the weight of international pressure, Scholz initially shied away from approving German tank deliveries to Ukraine, in part, because escalation might create problems in the more pacifist, leftist faction of his party. An anti-militarist line geared toward peace initiatives remains prevalent in SPD, just as it does in Labour. 

Since becoming Labour leader in 2020, Starmer has been determined to put any question of Labour’s commitment to international alliances firmly behind him. Consciously contradicting the intellectual framing of the Corbyn era, under Starmer, Labour has backed every decision the government has made on Ukraine, including sending tanks, and even threatened NATO-critical MPs with suspension. Now with Lammy’s speech on Tuesday, we see Labour’s latest geopolitical statement of intent.

Reaffirming that Labour would not shy away from an active role on the international stage, Lammy sent a message to those who may still doubt Labour’s geopolitical positioning. “From the beginning of this crisis through to the recent decision to send Challenger tanks, the government has had Labour’s total support [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.