This week’s instalment in the Pinning Down Miliband series very nearly had a different title: Does Labour have a foreign policy? On other topics, such as their approach to fiscal matters, or energy and the environment, we might strongly disagree with the Opposition’s views – but at least they’re discernable.
For a would-be government to be wrong is bad enough, but it is far worse to not really have a view at all, particularly on something so important as how Britain should interact with the rest of the world.
You can normally learn about a politician’s foreign policy from their set-piece speeches on the topic. Miliband hasn’t made any.
Then again, former Labour SpAd David Clark makes the point that even Tony Blair, who trod the international boards far more than most, didn’t make a major foreign policy speech until 1997.
Without a full airing of his views, or even a hint of which thinkers he might find inspiring, we’re forced to look to his actions to assess the Miliband doctrine instead. And that’s where things start to get confusing.
We know that immediately after winning the Labour leadership he sought to break with the Blairite past by denouncing the Iraq war, saying:
“We were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that.”
At the time it was hailed by the left as a new era, and over the next few months Miliband occasionally returned to the theme. In full Red Ed mode, by February 2011 he was writing articles in the Guardian which propounded the Gallowayish critique that previous Governments had:
“reduce[d] foreign policy to a narrow pursuit of commercial gain for Britain.”
and declaring that:
“the neocons were wrong to think we could impose democracy at the point of a gun.”
It seemed the Labour Party was being led by someone who was as far from a liberal interventionist as you could get.
Then, only days after writing the Guardian piece, Labour backed the decision to intervene in Libya. Suddenly he was comparing a crisis in North Africa to the Spanish Civil War, and criticising Britain’s failure to intervene in the 1930s.
The pendulum has continued to swing back and forth. When another dictator slaughtered his people en masse, in Syria, he carried out another about-turn. While the Libyans should be saved, Syria’s far bloodier meat-grinder would be allowed to continue.
Fast forward a few months, and he was back to attacking the Government for not doing enough to help Syrian refugees. The fact they are fleeing a dictator who continues to operate with impunity as a result of Labour’s vote in August has been conveniently forgotten.
This confusion does, despite first appearances, allow us to draw some conclusions about Miliband’s foreign policies. First, it seems he subscribes to the view that an Opposition’s best interests are served by avoiding it as much as possible. Second, international affairs are of sufficiently low importance that he will allow them to be dictated by his domestic tactical situation.
That can be seen in his havering over an EU referendum, too. Support for EU integration, and the contempt for the people required to hold such a position, is deeply embedded within the modern Labour Party. So far, they have continued to deny the people a say, on the dubious grounds that a referendum would be the source of disastrous uncertainty (an argument that could be followed to the logical conclusion of scrapping elections, but let’s not give them any ideas).
Even that opinion is hedged, though – Labour has refused to rule out a referendum at some point in the future. There’s no great ideological reason for that – it’s clearly just an option they intend to keep in their back pocket should it prove handy to get them out of a tight corner. Hence their decision to sink the Wharton Bill by underhand means, rather than to openly vote against it.
Just about the only issue on which he now holds a settled view is his rejection of the unpleasant anti-Israel streak that still taints some of the left. After some early doubts, he declared himself a “supporter of Israel” and has taken a firm line on Iran’s nuclear programme. His support for a democratic Palestinian state has remained constant since he won the leadership.
Beyond that, it’s remarkable that some of the most important international ramifications of Labour policy now come from the overspill of its domestic policy agenda, not deliberate foreign policy positions. Miliband’s decarbonisation target will be economically suicidal unless he manages to persuade the rest of the world to drastically increase the cost of their energy at the same time. Judging from the rhetoric, Ed Balls’ magic money tree seems to rely on other countries agreeing to raise their taxes sufficiently to deter an exodus from the UK like that recently experienced by France. Labour are promising things at home that require Herculean efforts abroad to even approach viability.
In effect, this is a foreign policy largely constructed by accident and opportunism. The lives and deaths of people in the Middle East are determined on what seems convenient at the time, our international economic competitiveness is at the mercy of Labour’s search to appeal to core voters, and our relationship with the EU will only be determined by the British people if Miliband urgently needs a fillip in the polls.
Based on neither idealism nor realism, it could be described as a One Nation policy – in the sense that Miliband’s only real aim is to win power in Britain, and events in any other nation can go whistle. That may serve his electoral aim, but it does not augur well for a successful time in office.
There is one man trying to give some coherence and some structure to Labour’s foreign policy, however. Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, edited a book of collected essays last year entitled Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges For British Foreign Policy which at least began to sketch out a worldview. In an interview with the Guardian in November, he tried to draw a distinction from the existing foreign policy narrative, arguing that while Britain’s relationships with the US and the EU “come under strain”, the truly important trend is the emergence of Beijing.
That said, he has simply raised the issue, not proposed a coherent answer as to how we ought to deal with China’s economic promise, totalitarian oppression and expansionist threats. It could be fruitful territory for him, but as the rest of his interview descended into the noncommittal official lines on other matters, it seems unlikely that his Leader will give him the freedom to develop it.