All Change: Britain’s New Shadow Foreign Secretary

On the 29th of November, Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer announced a wide-ranging reshuffle of his Shadow Cabinet – including the decision to replace Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy with former Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy. The reshuffle comes two months after the Government’s own Cabinet shake-up, which saw Liz Truss move from the Trade brief to become Foreign Secretary, a role in which she has already signalled her intent to re-muscularise the FCDO to deliver on the ambitious Global Britain project. Lisa Nandy, a strong media performer with cut-through among the British people, will now take on the Levelling Up brief, in a move that will see her squaring up against Michael Gove on her comfortable terrain of regional inequalities.

While technically a demotion from one of the traditional ‘top dog’ roles, Nandy’s appointment to the Levelling Up agenda is clearly an endorsement of her capabilities on the Government’s single most prominent election platform. While the phrase ‘Global Britain’ hasn’t taken hold amongst voters, the language of ‘Levelling Up’ has gained a resonance that also necessitates fierce accountability. Calls to move Lisa Nandy from her international portfolio have been growing over recent months, spurred by a frustration that her political talent wasn’t being given sufficient space to shine.

On one level, this may seem curious. Many aspects of the UK’s foreign policy have been firmly front and centre since the 2019 General Election, with the ongoing issues around UK-EU relations, the Channel migration crisis, the election of Joe Biden, the publishing of the Integrated Review, the Afghanistan withdrawal, the global coronavirus pandemic, and the UK’s hosting of both the G7 and COP26 summits, all prominent in the news. This is clearly not a problem brought on by a deficit of issues. The lack of visibility of the Shadow Foreign Secretary rather reveals something about the way in which the Global Britain project is playing out in practice.

Lisa Nandy’s appointment had signalled that Labour wanted to construct a foreign policy mindful of the tensions within the openness-security paradigm. This is a non-negotiable for Western governments as we remain in a period of deep political instability, in part spurred by social and economic change linked to the advance of globalisation. It appears that this straddling of the domestic-international bridge is a capability more important for the Government than the opposition right now – in part because so much of this bridge is realised in practice through coordination with other portfolios and therefore must be a holistic project. Our international legitimacy on climate, for example, is underpinned by our capacity to smoothly make the transition at home to net-zero, without fostering a new narrative of ‘winners and losers’. The Government has not yet fully reorganised its machinery to meet the needs compelled by this symbiosis, and therefore it is difficult for the Shadow Foreign Secretary to have an impact in drawing such links.

It is also true that much of the basic architecture of the UK’s foreign policy is increasingly becoming bipartisan. There are a number of longer-term trends underpinning this, including the evolution of the nature of the threats we face, and the choices being made by our strategic rivals. It is also the case that the decision made by Labour to not engage on the substance of the ongoing battles over the implementation of the Brexit deal, which matches the unwillingness to-date within HMG to talk substantively about broader areas of UK-EU cooperation, has taken a suite of issues of possible contention off the table. The consequence is that the opposition is challenging the Government less on policy substance and more in terms of holding them to account for delivery. This may suit the new Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, a former barrister and powerful speaker – although he has been very outspoken about Brexit and it is unclear how he will wish to approach this area of his portfolio. (It should also be noted that international development remains a separate Shadow post, despite these having been functionally combined within the FCDO).

As the BFPG’s social research has made clear, Labour’s voting base remains deeply polarised on foreign policy, but to come to power they will need to peg their foreign policy strategy into the centre. It is essential that Labour understands that Government is leading from the front in imbuing much of its foreign policy with a more internationalist, values-based and ambitious streak than many of its own voters may instinctively desire – and hence is also pitching to the middle ground. This must be taken into account when Labour considers its opposition strategy – it is difficult, for example, to see Labour winning the next election by promoting “an ethical foreign policy”.

Labour should rather focus on methodically restoring its legitimacy on national security over the remainder of the parliamentary term. The disastrous Corbyn years have left deep scars on Labour’s credibility in this space, which could conceivably take a decade to heal. Against such a backdrop, even just being able to sit at the table in a framework of bipartisanship should be seen as a win. After all, not many voters wake up thinking about foreign policy, but they certainly notice if they feel insecure going to bed at night.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.