Labour: Manifesto pledges on UK foreign policy

To download a .pdf version of the summary, click here

“The BFPG’s Tom Cargill has taken all the foreign policy relevant sections of the 2017 Labour manifesto and grouped them in one document to make it more accessible for everyone interested in UK foreign policy. He has also provided a short summary analysis of the foreign policy approach which emerges from the manifesto”.

Labour’s position on foreign policy has developed since the 2015 manifesto.


A major area of expansion is on international trade which was not mentioned in 2015 but receives an entire section in the 2017 manifesto. The focus on helping small and medium sized companies and all the UK regions to export more is particularly important given the need for the UK to address its unsustainable trade deficit (the fact we import more than we export). A commitment to ‘review our historic investment treaties’, however laudable, risks diverting scarce government resources that will already be stretched by the needs of Brexit negotiations and any subsequent free trade negotiations the UK may require.


On that point however, Labour commit to ‘retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union’, which suggests the UK would not be in a position to freely negotiate FTAs in the way we could do if we left these EU wide agreements. Even whether the UK will leave the EU is not wholly certain under Labour, with the manifesto stating that ‘Labour accepts the referendum result’ yet also committing to rejecting ‘no deal’ between the EU & the UK as a viable option. Combined with a commitment to retain the benefits of many other aspects of EU membership the implication has to be that continued membership of the EU in some form remains an option.


There is a contrast with the Conservative position too (less so with the Liberal Democrat position) on immigration with a commitment not to include foreign students in immigration figures and a replacement of income thresholds with a prohibition on recourse to public funds. The focus on supporting UK regions to ease any burden associated with hosting immigrants is important, but the lack of specifics on this and other areas related to immigration risks undermining its impact in areas where immigration has been a major factor in recent votes.


Another major area of development from the 2015 manifesto is on diplomacy, including a welcome acknowledgment of the need to invest more in the UK’s diplomatic services, though a reference to Conservative cuts understandably ignores the significant cuts that took place under the previous Labour government. In the manifesto itself the significant and relatively specific list of conflicts and tensions globally that Labour would focus diplomatic resources to address is welcome in itself. However, importantly in the context of the repeatedly expressed aspiration to greatly reduce if not eradicate the threat or use of force as part of the UK foreign policy toolkit, it is not clear what additional diplomatic or other tools will be applied to compensate in contexts where, often there continues to be significant and intense diplomatic engagement to find resolutions. This ambiguity also undermines an otherwise important (and new to this manifesto) commitment to defend the sovereignty of our Overseas Territories.


Having said that, what is written in the Labour manifesto on defence is fairly consistent with previous manifestos and welcome in committing to spending 2% of GDP on defence and addressing the concerning capacity issues impacting the UK’s military capacity. The reference addressing emerging threats of cyber and hybrid warfare are also particularly welcome in the current context.

Development Assistance

Finally; the focus on international development is consistent with previous manifestos and reference to the Sustainable Development Goals and Modern Slavery Act are welcome. The one new area of focus is on a push for Universal Health Coverage, which could be an important source of soft power for the UK if implemented well, but requiring considerable and sustained commitment to achieve, and controversial in some parts of the world.


Overall voters may or may not agree with aspects of the manifesto as it relates to foreign policy, but it is surprisingly reflective of much mainstream foreign policy thinking in most respects. This of course may be a drawback as much as a strength. Given the new and uncharted international territory the UK is entering more ambition and imagination for the UK’s international position is not just desirable, but necessary.


To read a similar analysis of the Liberal Democrats Manifesto, click here.

To read a similar analysis of the Conservative Manifesto, click here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.