Why Foreign Policy Really Will Matter in the General Election

Working in foreign policy, I often hear that ‘foreign policy doesn’t win elections’. And that may be true – the majority of voters will always vote based on what is happening on their doorstep – but in an increasingly globalised world, the public are both more attune to, and more impacted by, global events than ever before.

Straight out of the starting gate, Prime Minister Sunak’s election announcement focused heavily on the two parties’ abilities to deliver a ‘secure future’ for Britain. Of course this is multifaceted, incorporating economic security as much as defence itself, but in drawing his initial battlelines, Sunak has made clear that national security will play a major role in the election debate. In part this is driven by the very turbulent geopolitical times we live in – there is no denying that national security is, and will continue to be, a major challenge for the UK. It is also clearly a significant concern for the British public – who, our research has consistently found, display very strong feelings of insecurity and high levels of concern about national security.

But perhaps most importantly of all for the Conservatives, national security is one of the areas where, with the public at least, their reputation has fared best in recent years. In large part this is due to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s very vocal support for Ukraine, which won him major plaudits in the UK and beyond. And with Sunak ‘one upping’ Starmer’s 2.5% GDP defence spending target, by adding a clear timeline (2030) for when the Conservatives would hit the goal, it’s clear that Sunak is eager to build on Johnson’s legacy and position the Conservatives as the party of defence.

Defence isn’t all plain sailing for Sunak though. The public still trust Labour more than the Conservatives on defence, albeit to a lesser degree than in other policy areas. And the very public debates between ministers, departments and the public about the state of the UK’s defence capabilities over the past few years will no doubt hang over his efforts. 

The other major foreign policy and security debate in the election will centre around illegal migration, with both the major parties looking to flex their muscles over their plans to ‘stop the boats’. Indeed, it is widely touted that one of the reasons Sunak called the election early is because the optics of large numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in the Summer (as is usually the case), would risk further worsening the Conservatives’ position heading into an Autumn election, especially if they had failed to get a Rwanda flight off the ground over Summer.

Illegal migration is also high on the list of public concerns, with 65% of Britons believing the UK should do more to exclude illegal migrants from the UK. It is also a hot topic among the tabloid newspapers, for whom barely a week seems to go by without a front page on channel crossings. No doubt they’ll seek to use the election as an opportunity to push both of the major parties to get tougher on illegal migration, pushing illegal migration firmly into the spotlight in this election.

Meanwhile, the conflict in the Middle East will also throw up some difficult questions during the election campaign, particularly for Labour. With just 18% of the public approving of the UK Government’s response to the conflict, and just 12% approving of Labour’s response, both parties have a long way to go to build back public support. And the local elections have already made clear the electoral impact the crisis can have. Despite a fairly emphatic local election victory, Labour experienced an almost 18% drop in support in areas of England where more than a fifth of people identified as Muslim. The conflict will also likely pose some challenges for Labour among younger voters, particularly in university towns, which have been sites of a large number of pro-Palestine encampments.

On this, Labour may well benefit from the early election, limiting time for grass-roots opposition candidates and independents to build a coordinated platform, in specific seats, on a pro-Palestine platform. But that won’t stop some difficult questions for both parties, but particularly for Labour, during the election campaign.

Elsewhere, debates about climate change and economic security will no doubt play a role, particularly among those most vulnerable or concerned about energy prices, and those with strong views about climate change. The UK’s relationship with Europe also still sits high on the agenda for many potential voters.

Of course, this isn’t to say that foreign policy will impact every vote. No doubt individuals most impacted by or most personally attuned to global issues will be more likely to have their vote shaped by foreign policy. It’s also almost impossible to predict how an election will play out, which depends as much on how opponents play the election and on global factors beyond our control, as it does on any individual party stances. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of foreign policy in this election. Foreign policy will impact the outcome on July 4th. It would be foolish for parties not to prioritise it.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group