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Labour is in tune with voters’ concerns about foreign policy

Labour is in tune with voters’ concerns about foreign policy
3 min read

Today’s voters understand that politics does not stop at the water’s edge – that’s why foreign policy matters, says Emily Thornberry

Having spent time in both professions, I’m often asked whether lawyers and politicians have much in common. You can fill in your own punchline but one thing is for sure, they both love an adage – wise sayings passed down the generations to reinforce the way that things are done.

I was pondering three great adages over the summer, all beloved of American politicians, and all relevant to my own job.

“There are no votes in foreign policy.”

When that was said to Sam Seaborn in The West Wing, he replied: “You just wrote off 98% of the world’s population and three-quarters of the president’s job description.” But he didn’t dispute the basic notion. And perhaps the reason lies below ...

“Politics stops at the water’s edge.”

In other words, political parties should always seek a consensus on foreign policy and present a united front to the outside world. As a consequence, there should be little for the voter to choose between the parties on foreign policy. And even if there is, it matters not because ...

“All politics is local.”

Ultimately, it is argued, what will persuade someone to vote are the issues that matter to them, their family and community, and candidates who truly understand and speak to those issues; a local candidate who bangs on about foreign policy is wasting their time.

Having thought long and hard about these three adages over the summer, I’m prepared to counter them with another: history is bunk.

Or, to paraphrase Henry Ford more fully, history is tradition but we want to live in the present. And to my mind, in British politics at least, those adages are starting to look out of date.

First, there is clearly no consensus between the current Labour frontbench and our Tory counterparts on the major foreign policy issues we face. The idea that we present a united front on issues like Brexit, Trump, human rights, arms sales and Yemen is bunk on stilts.

And second, the idea that these issues do not matter in voters’ minds because they are not ‘local’ is increasingly obsolete. The ‘all politics is local’ mantra thrived on the reality that – outside major cities – it was the local paper and radio station that were the main source of news, and the most trusted. That remains the case today, but the personal connections that people feel towards local media are also felt towards the news and opinions shared with them on social media. On those channels, as every MP knows, what is happening in Yemen, for example, can inspire as much passion, commitment and fury from constituents as the threatened closure of a local A&E.

To use the pollsters’ jargon, foreign policy issues are clearly rising in salience among some key groups of voters, and it would therefore be an odd political party that wrote off the importance of those issues.

Enter the Tories, who – under Theresa May – have given up all pretence that their foreign policies are determined by anything other than the hope of future trade deals to cushion the impact of Brexit.

It is a straightforward approach, but one totally out of tune with voters’ concerns about foreign policy. Contrast that with Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, which is not just in tune with those voters’ concerns, but is giving them a loud and passionate voice in public debate.

We will see how that debate progresses over the coming months, but one thing is certain, when it comes to the next election, foreign policy will be on the ballot.


Emily Thornberry is Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and shadow foreign secretary

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