Starmer seeks to make his mark on the foreign stage
The next UK general election could still be more than a year away. However, it is not only growing numbers of UK domestic politicians who are anticipating a transfer of power in Westminster to the Labour Party after almost a decade and a half of Conservative-led government.
In addition, there are growing signs that key world leaders are also planning for a new UK administration headed by Labour leader Keir Starmer. The latest indication of this came on Tuesday, when French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Starmer at the Elysee Palace. This built on a session the Labour leader had last year with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Last weekend too, Starmer met with a series of other world leaders at a Montreal gathering of left-of-center and centrist politicians. This included not just the event host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but also the likes of ex-European Commissioner Frans Timmermans, who hopes to become Dutch prime minister this autumn.
Starmer regularly cautions that he takes nothing for granted with the next UK general election result, as is absolutely right given the unpredictability of modern politics. However, foreign politicians looking at UK opinion polls for much of 2023 cannot help but read into the numbers that Labour is most likely to win, potentially in a political landslide like in 1997 under Tony Blair.
Whereas Blair sought to popularize the third or middle way, Starmer is focusing on what he calls the potential for a ‘progressive moment’
It was soon after that 1997 landmark win that Blair and then-US President Bill Clinton spoke of a new “third way,” with centrist political philosophy spreading across much of the world. This approach distinguished between the free market capitalism espoused by conservative leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the more statist or socialist-driven approach of the previous generation of politicians on the left.
Whereas Blair sought to popularize this third or middle way, Starmer is focusing on what he calls the potential for a “progressive moment.” One of the keys to whether this progressive potential will be fully realized is not just whether Starmer becomes UK prime minister, but also if US President Joe Biden can win a second term in Washington next year. The UK Labour Party has already sought to engage the Biden administration, including over its interventionist economic policy sometimes called “Bidenomics.” This has seen measures such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which Labour plans to try to simulate in the UK with a multibillion-pound Green Prosperity Plan.
One core challenge at the heart of the progressive moment that Starmer highlights is how to embed left-of-center and centrist policies into issues such as immigration, climate change and economic policy. For many years, it has been rightist, often populist, parties that have made much of the running on these agendas.
Starmer says that one of his chief international priorities, if he becomes prime minister, would be the restoration of the UK and its reputation on the world stage. “I feel very strongly that, since Brexit, there’s been a sense that we’ve not just exited the EU, that we’ve somehow turned our back on the world and wherever you go people feel almost the absence of the United Kingdom, once a leading voice, now rarely consulted,” he said.
What Starmer was alluding to here was the famous phrase of former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who asserted in the 1990s that the UK had been able to “punch above its weight” in the postwar era, despite it no longer being a great power. That statement was also true during much of the time since, but it has come under much greater scrutiny in the 2020s.
To help consolidate the presence of the UK on the international stage, Starmer has identified a series of issues that must be tackled
The leader of the UK opposition’s plan to deliver on his international agenda includes securing what he says is the possibility of a “much better” Brexit deal with the EU, if Labour wins the next general election. He asserts that the current deal, which is due for review in 2025, is “too thin.”
While Starmer is currently declining to comment on specifics, he has said that he wants a “closer trading relationship” with the EU, but has ruled out rejoining the customs union and single market. He said this week: “That’s not a question of going back in (the EU), but I refuse to accept that we can’t make it work (better).”
While the outlines of any deal are far from clear at this stage, it is plausible that the political opening will emerge from late 2024 onwards, when there may be a significantly different political map in both London and Brussels. Not only could Starmer be UK prime minister by then, but there will also be a new European Commission (albeit potentially still headed for a second term by President Ursula von der Leyen) at the heart of the EU.
To help consolidate the presence of the UK on the international stage, Starmer has also identified a series of issues — what he sees as an “axis of insecurity” — that must be tackled. This includes the cost-of-living crisis, illegal migration, the war in Ukraine and climate change.
On the illegal migration issue, for instance, Starmer last week visited The Hague to talk about how better cooperation with the EU could help deal with the political challenge of small boats crossing the English Channel to the UK. His visit to engage with the EU’s law enforcement agency Europol was aimed at trying to outline an agreement to try and stop people-smuggling gangs bringing migrants across the Channel.
Taken together, Starmer is building relationships with many world leaders, given the huge range of international challenges that will confront him if he becomes UK prime minister in the near future. As the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukraine war have shown, there may be little time to grow into the job before a first foreign affairs crisis knocks at his door.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.