16 Oct Party Conferences: Emerging Foreign Policy Fault Lines
It’s been a busy few weeks outside of Westminster as politicians, journalists, wonks, and party members alike descended on Manchester and Liverpool for this year’s Conservative and Labour party conferences. Likely the last party conference season before the next general election, the conferences were an opportunity for parties to set out their visions for the year ahead, providing an insight into what next year’s manifestos may contain. But what was said? Where do the fault lines lie? And what does it mean for UK foreign policy?
At both conferences we learned most, in foreign policy terms, about the parties’ ambitions for international development – likely the result of the spotlight on the sector ahead of the upcoming International Development White paper, as well as the sheer number of international development-focused events at Conservative party conference and the sharp message of clarity Lisa Nandy delivered to her new international development brief.
On the Conservative side, Minister for Development and Africa, Andrew Mitchell, announced that despite the tight turnaround times, the government received hundreds of submissions during the Call For Evidence for the International Development White Paper. Mitchell also announced that the paper will be released on the 20th of November, at the Global Food Security Summit – an indication, perhaps, of one of the themes likely to feature prominently in the report.
Meanwhile, Lisa Nandy, who has been in post less than a month, made clear that women and girls would remain a top international development priority under a Labour government, as it has been under the Conservatives. Nandy also emphasised that Labour would focus on where there is most need and where the UK is best equipped to lead (with a particular focus therefore on education, skills and finance). ‘Respect’ quickly became her buzzword of the conference as she advocated for the building of partnerships with developing nations, helping them develop their knowledge and skills, and limit their long-term aid reliance. She also, on multiple occasions, congratulated and thanked Minister Mitchell for his work on international development, even while critiquing wider Conservative development policy – a striking sign of how well respected Mitchell is in the sector.
It is still the case that neither party will commit to precisely if and when they would restore the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% GNI on aid and development, and given the lack of public support for such a move, it is unlikely that either party would commit to it in their manifesto or during the run up to the election. It also looks increasingly unlikely that Labour would fully undo the FCDO merger, instead only partially separating aid and focusing on boosting morale among FCDO civil servants.
With the devastating conflict in the Middle East breaking out between the two party conferences, the conflict unsurprisingly dominated foreign policy conversations at the conference. In statements made at the conference and since there has, so far, been little to differentiate the two parties on the conflict, made evident not least by the embrace between Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy as they both spoke to Sky News about the conflict. For both parties, the official line so far has been an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas, support for Israel’s right to defend itself within the bounds of international law, and a growing emphasis on the need to ensure humanitarian aid and safe escape routes for civilians in Gaza.
The two party conferences further made clear that Europe, and in particular relations with the European Union, will provide the sharpest foreign policy divide between the two parties heading into a general election. Cleverly used his conference speech to criticise Labour for being unable to imagine a world beyond Brussels, espousing the benefits of UK independence from Europe and emphasising the importance of the Indo-Pacific, with particular attention given to the perceived importance of a UK-India FTA. Meanwhile, Lammy used the analogy of dating to describe what the UK-EU relationship could look like under Labour. As a starting point for a rebuilding of relations, or ‘dating’, Lammy would focus on creating a more structured dialogue with the EU, starting with strengthening trade relations when the trade and cooperation agreement is up for review. Lammy also reiterated Labour’s commitment to pursuing a defence pact with the EU.
On national security, Cleverly and Sunak alike used their speeches to highlight the Conservative’s track record on defence, particularly emphasising the leading role the UK has played in support for Ukraine. Lammy similarly sought to emphasise his commitment to Ukraine, although he refused to be drawn on whether Labour would commit to spending 2.5% of GDP on defence.
On China, Cleverly used fringe events to defend his China policy, emphasising the importance of being in the room with China. It’s an approach echoed by Lammy whose ‘three C’s’ approach to China (compete, challenge, co-operate) has a striking resemblance to Cleverly’s three-pronged approach to China. One notable difference though is Lammy’s commitment to a full audit of UK-China relations on Day 1, should Labour come into office.
Migration is also taking up a growing part of the national security conversation, with illegal migration presented as a threat to the UK’s sovereignty and stability. With tackling illegal migration one of Sunak’s five priorities on assuming office, he used his conference speech to highlight that small boats crossings are down 20% this year, and while he made no reference to the ECHR, he made clear he would “do whatever is necessary to stop the boats”. Although Starmer mentioned ‘the movement of people’ in passing, migration was a notably less prominent component of the Labour leader’s speech.
Climate Change and Net Zero
Following announcements of a row-back on a number of the government’s climate commitments in the lead up to the conference, Prime Minister Sunak used his conference speech to reaffirm his commitment to adopting a more ‘pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to net zero’. This shift is underpinned by a belief that, particularly in the context of the current cost of living crisis, household budgets cannot tolerate what Sunak regards as the burden of the economic costs of the climate transition. This was a hotly debated topic at the Conservative party conference and the number of net zero-focused events was striking as the climate sector and climate activists scrambled to win back what had previously been bipartisan support for the net zero transition.
In contrast, Labour is looking to sharpen its green credentials. Leader Keir Starmer used his speech to reiterate his commitments to the UK’s net zero targets and to announce a proposal for community renewable energy. Elsewhere Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves highlighted plans for a more extensive windfall tax on fossil fuel companies, while Shadow Energy Secretary Ed Miliband was forthright in his commitments to clean energy. It’s clear another new foreign policy fault line is emerging heading into the election.
Where to Next?
As we head towards a general election, the party conferences have given us a glimmer of insight as to where each party will lie on key foreign policy issues. Climate change and relations with the EU are quickly emerging as the big dividers, with the two parties increasingly polarised in their views. On national security, there is much consensus, although there will no doubt be a significant debate to be had over the two parties’ track records in this regard. Meanwhile, international development, Ukraine and the Middle East, for now, are being afforded fairly broad cross-party alignment. Only time will tell whether that holds.