25 Oct Where do Labour Voters Stand on Foreign Policy?
In the aftermath of the 2016 Referendum, discussions around the UK’s international strategy have necessarily tended to coalesce around the governing Conservative Party, and its ambition for a ‘truly Global Britain’. Scrutiny around the distinctive foreign policy views of the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, reached a fever pitch ahead of the 2017 election, but it still remains unclear as how the Labour Party under his administration would tackle some of the major issues of the day. There has been particular confusion, partly as a result of differing opinions within the leadership team as a whole, as to how a Labour government would consider our membership of multilateral organisations, such as NATO, the future of our ‘special relationship’ in security and defence with the United States, and the maintenance of our defence capabilities.
At the Labour Party Conference this year, foreign policy-focused events were few and far between, with domestic issues such as health, education and the economy taking centre stage at the fringes, while battles over the party’s Brexit policy raged on in the main hall. The fringe events that did take place can be distilled into three clear topics: climate change, supporting Palestine (and condemning Israel), and promoting an ‘open borders’ immigration policy. When viewed together, it is clear that the membership and the grassroots operation behind them are veering significantly away from a foreign policy approach grounded in the common wisdom of the established world order.
Yet, we are reminded that there are often significant differences between the positions of a party’s dedicated members and the voting base – often a much broader coalition of varied interests, which necessarily moderates itself.
Earlier this year, we published a report exploring the nature of public opinion on the UK’s role in the world – a project we will be conducting on an annual basis moving forward. Revisiting the full data-set from the 2019 survey provides some fascinating insights into the differences in British public opinion by past and anticipated voting behaviour. While citizens’ voting behaviour and the nature of the political parties is shifting in a historically significant manner, this data does provide some fascinating tea leaves into the possible future direction of our national foreign policy conversation. Below, I present five key findings:
1. Labour voters are less likely to be interested in foreign affairs than Conservatives, and also less inclined to feel knowledgeable about it. They are more likely to be interested than knowledgeable.
Overall, 73 per cent of Labour voters describe themselves as interested in foreign affairs, and 22 per cent of them are ‘very interested’. This compares to 77 per cent of Conservative voters being interested, and 27 per cent who are ‘very interested’. In short, a difference of around five percentage points. By way of comparison, 82 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters are interested in global issues – the highest of any party membership. Looking across the country as a whole, the 65 per cent of Britons describe themselves as interested in foreign affairs.
Turning to knowledge about foreign affairs, we can see that only 46 per cent of Labour voters consider themselves to be informed, compared to a much more robust 59 per cent of Conservative voters – a 13 percentage point difference. Labour voters are close to the overall national percentage of citizens (43 per cent) who describe themselves as knowledgeable about foreign policy. It is important to note the profound gap between Labour voters’ self-report interest in global issues and their degree of knowledge about them, emphasising the considerable knowledge deficit citizens experience in the area of foreign affairs.
2. Despite their lower degree of interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs, Labour voters are more likely than Conservative voters to call for a higher level of government investment across a range of areas.
32 per cent of Labour voters believe we should increase the level of spending on foreign affairs – including defence, diplomacy, international development and trade – and 16 per cent believe we should spend less. A similar proportion, 13 per cent, are unsure about optimal spending levels.
By contrast, less than a quarter of Conservative voters (24 per cent) believe we should spend more, 31 per cent emphatically believe we should spend less. The percentage of Conservative and Labour voters who believe funding should stay the same is almost identical, at 39 and 40 per cent, respectively.
The heightened support for investment from Labour voters compared to Conservative voters, likely reflects their broader, more hard-wired instincts towards and against a more active state. It is fascinating that this instinct appears to override Labour voters’ otherwise comparatively reduced interest and knowledge of foreign affairs as an issue of concern.
3. Labour voters spread their interest in foreign issues across a much greater number of issues than Conservative voters, due to their disproportionate interest in environmental and humanitarian issues.
Labour voters are invested in a wider range of internationally relevant issues than Conservative voters. They have a considerably larger stake in issues such as climate change (50 per cent vs. 27 per cent of Conservative voters), humanitarian crises (28 per cent vs. just nine per cent of Conservative voters), and global wars such as Syria (23 per cent vs. 10 per cent of Conservative voters).
Yet, they are also interested, though to a lesser extent, in areas that are important to Conservatives, such as Brexit (53 per cent), international terrorism (33 per cent), immigration (30 per cent), trade (20 per cent) and international crime (15 per cent).
The areas where Labour voters differ most dramatically from the broader country as a whole are in their reduced interest in immigration (12 percentage points less concerned), and their out-sized interest in climate change (12 percentage points more concerned) and humanitarian crises (10 percentage points more concerned).
4. Labour voters are twice as likely to want the UK to be seen globally as a non-interventionist nation, rather than as a nation which intervenes to resolve conflicts.
When asked how they would like the UK to position itself in the world, only 11 per cent of Labour voters want to be seen as a nation that intervenes in global conflicts, while twice as many would specifically prefer to not be seen as an interventionist nation.
The BFPG is undertaking dedicated research on this topic, to further explore the complex dynamics on this issue across all parties in the post-Iraq, post-Syria landscape.
5. The EU is the only international institution or multilateral organisation for which more Labour voters support the UK’s membership of than Conservative voters. In every other instance, ie. NATO, Conservative voters are more favourable to multilateralism and international cooperation.
When asked to consider whether the UK should retain its membership of a range of different international organisations and multilateral institutions, it is striking to see how the European Union is considered within an entirely distinct context. As such, the support EU membership commands amongst Labour voters pulls dramatically ahead of the views of Conservative voters. For every other organisation, however, it is Conservative members who are more likely to emphatically favour retained membership.
The discrepancy between Labour and Conservative voters is most clearly evident on the issue of NATO membership, and also the future of our relationship with the Commonwealth. These two examples likely capture Labour voters’ relative caution around defence policy and interventionism, as well as their concern regarding the legacy of the British Empire.
While Labour voters do not necessarily advocate abandoning membership of any of these organisations as a specific policy, they are clearly less enthusiastic about international collaboration in the realm of defence, trade and diplomacy, and are often more inclined to say they are unsure about the best approach. This suggests there is quite a high degree of potential influence from the leadership, in any direction.
Finally, to note that Labour voters are in fact closer to the national averages on these questions of membership, with Conservative voters unusual in their heightened levels of support for international organisations and governance.
6. Labour voters are evenly spread in their desire for foreign policy to be underpinned by economic and strategic interests, or more driven by values – but they are only half as likely overall to choose economic and strategic motivations, compared to Conservative voters.
Labour voters are more balanced than Conservative Party voters in their approach to the complex series of interests underpinning the nature and direction of our foreign affairs. Overall, 43 per cent of Labour voters would prefer that our international engagement is driven by an equal balance of economic and strategic defence interests, and our values. A further 24 per cent would prefer that it is guided more strongly by economic and strategic interests, and 23 per cent lean more heavily towards values.
By contrast, a majority (53 per cent) of Conservative voters are clear that economic and strategic interests should be the primary goal of our foreign activities, with a further third (35 per cent) preferring to balance these with values, and just five per cent prioritising values alone.
Looking at the nation as a whole, it is worth noting that the average Briton falls somewhat closer to the Labour position on this issue than the Conservative position. For example, there is a nine percentage point gap between the proportion of Labour voters who overtly support a strategic approach rather than a values-based approach and Britons overall, compared to a 20 percentage point gap between Conservative voters and Britons overall.
It is often said that foreign affairs are one of the most malleable areas of public opinion, and a space in which political leaders can play the largest role in shaping and moulding priorities. This makes perfect sense, because most citizens’ lives are much more concerned with the domestic policy areas and services that they interact with on a day-to-day basis. They are also not privy to the vast majority of the diplomacy and intelligence operations that underpin our decision-making in Whitehall.
That said, we are now living in an environment where politicians and political parties are paying a much higher level of attention to public opinion. Whether or not you believe that this is a positive development, it is important to consider the role that this shift in emphasis could play as it begins to metastasise more prominently in our foreign policy. The Labour Party’s governing apparatus and its membership are clearly moving away from the bipartisan status quo that developed around our international role, and this data suggests that there is some fertile ground for a stronger groundswell of support for this new direction amongst their voters, too.
For those defenders of the ‘existing world order’ in Whitehall, the picture will appear mixed. On one hand, Labour voters are distinctly more sceptical of international institutions and multilateralism, and less likely to recognise the value of investing in our defence capabilities. At the same time, they are also interested in a much wider range of issues and more likely to regard them as international areas of concern – such as climate change, humanitarian crises, and global wars. They are also more likely to support higher levels of funding for our international activities in general.
Some of these positions are clearly contradictory. They point to the fact that Labour voters are less certain of their positions on international affairs than their Conservative-voting counterparts. They also offer both hope and concern for those concerned that the Labour Party’s leadership and membership may encourage a dramatic shift in tone. In short, there is evidence that Labour voters could be brought closer towards the position of their anti-globalist, left-wing leadership on defence; equally, a solid foundation of support remains for ‘the way things were’.
Next time, I will be exploring how the ‘homecoming’ of UKIP voters, who hold very distinct global views, could affect the Conservatives’ foreign policy priorities.
Survey Sample: 1,514 British adults aged 18+. Fieldwork conducted online by BMG Research, between 8 – 11 January 2019.
The data used in this analysis is based on self-declared voting intention, as of the time of the survey. Evidently, the political landscape has shifted dramatically since the time of this survey – most notably, with the emergence of the Brexit Party, the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats, and a wide series of defections and expulsions from the major parties.
The forthcoming annual survey of British public opinion on foreign policy will be published by the British Foreign Policy Group in 2020.