What a Labour government would mean for the world

Gareth Thomas MPBy Gareth Thomas, Shadow Foreign Office Minister and Labour MP for Harrow West

The numerous foreign policy challenges facing the next government are well known. The threats of terrorism, cyber-attacks and transnational organised crime are growing, while Russian aggression in Ukraine represents a real test for Britain and its allies. More than 200,000 people have died and an estimated 9 million have had to flee their homes since the conflict began in Syria in March 2011. There are now more than 50 million people globally who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, the highest figure in the post-war period, and the equivalent of more than the entire population of Spain.

Faced with such grim statistics, and in the wake of images of atrocities such as the murder of hostages by Islamic State militants, it is possible to see why there is a growing sense that these threats and challenges are now so complex that they are essentially insurmountable. There are those who argue that Britain, and the West more generally, are on an inevitable course of decline, and that the only option is to retreat into isolationism.

But an incoming Labour government in 2015, led by Ed Miliband, would not share this view. As Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, has set out, Labour will pursue an agenda of progressive internationalism.

We share with other parties the view that the key goals of UK foreign policy are to promote our economic prospects, and to defend the physical security of British citizens. This means, for example, that we must devote resources to tackle the threat of terrorism and cyber-attacks. But Labour will seek to pursue these key goals within a clear framework of progressive values and principles.

In practice, a progressive and internationalist approach would recognise the benefits that the UK has gained from a period of sustained and organised solidarity with like-minded nations since the end of the Second World War, based on common democratic values. We have built strong links with the United States and the Commonwealth, and through institutions such as the European Union, United Nations and Nato, have been able to promote our core security and economic interests through co-operation with other nations.

We must strengthen, not weaken, the post-1945 international institutions and treaties such as the UN, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and the Non Proliferation Treaty, if we are to continue to make the case for international norms, such as the laws of war, intervention to prevent genocide and repression, and respect for human rights. As Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary has set out, the Tories’ disregard for the European Convention on Human Rights is not just an attack on the individual rights it has protected in the UK, but also severely weakens our influence and authority on human rights abuses abroad.

A progressive internationalist approach is also essential if we are to tackle global challenges like climate change. The UN summit in Paris later this year represents a vital opportunity to reach a global agreement on tackling climate change, and the UK can play a key role in delivering an ambitious outcome from this conference.

2015 is also a crucial year for international development. Negotiations have begun on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which will be decided at the UN in September. The last Labour government worked with other countries to champion the Millennium Development Goals which has driven enormous progress, but with more than one billion people still living on less than $1.25 a day, there is still much work to be done.

The scale of devastation in western Africa caused by ebola demonstrates the importance of building up the capacity of local healthcare systems in developing countries, not only to support the communities most affected by the outbreak, but also because in an increasingly interconnected world, such outbreaks can pose a risk to our shores.

While huge advances have been made in tackling HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, in some countries poor governance, slow progress on women’s rights, and anti-gay legislation threaten to reinforce the stigmatisation of sufferers and set back efforts to tackle the epidemic.

Labour believes that universal health coverage, the importance of human rights, and action on climate change should be the central priorities of the SDGs.

In advancing these international priorities though, it is clear that an incoming Labour government would be operating under a number of serious constraints, including the impact of budgetary constraints on spending on diplomacy and defence, and the changing geopolitical situation.

We must seek to deepen co-operation with China, as it emerges as a significant global actor, not just in terms of building economic ties, but also in working together to support and stabilise countries and regions such as Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where China is developing economic links.

Labour has also been consistent in arguing that our membership of the EU remains central to our prosperity and security. An incoming government in May would need to repair and reset the relationships that David Cameron has damaged with our European partners, and restore Britain’s influence within the EU.

We are clear that the task facing us to make the case for progressive internationalism is significant. Our experiences in Europe over the last century demonstrate that strength at home can contribute to peace abroad. Labour’s vision of an economy that works for working people is needed to achieve prosperity at home, and weaken the attraction of introversion and isolation.

The decline of the UK’s role in the world is not inevitable, and an incoming Labour government would make the case for a progressive and internationalist response to the global challenges we face.

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