David Lammy’s big idea: Nothing will change under Labour

The man who wants to be foreign secretary is reassuring elite audiences that UK foreign policy will not seriously change under a Keir Starmer government - a strategy confirmed in Labour’s election manifesto.

13 June 2024
David Lammy and Keir Starmer in Normandy. (Photo: Labour Party / Flickr)

David Lammy and Keir Starmer in Normandy. (Photo: Labour Party / Flickr)

“Labour has been clear throughout this conflict that international law must be upheld”, David Lammy recently told parliament, referring to Gaza.

The opposite is the case: Keir Starmer, Lammy himself and other Labour figures, have largely given Israel a free pass in committing whatever crime it wants in Gaza free from any censure by Labour.

Starmer said last October that Israel has the “right” to cut off water and power from Gaza.

Then last month, the Labour leader repeatedly refused to say in an interview with Channel 4 if he would enforce the arrest warrants for Israeli ministers being sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Lammy, who is a lawyer like Starmer, also appears to have a problem seeing where international law needs to be upheld. 

Lammy has not overtly supported the ICC prosecutor’s call to arrest Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant. Rather, he has told MPs that the ICC’s decision to seek warrants “is an independent matter for the court”.

Last October, after Israel bombed the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, killing over 50 civilians, Lammy stated that “it’s wrong to bomb a refugee camp but clearly if there is a military objective it can be legally justifiable. It’s for Israel to explain its actions”.

But Lammy did do something remarkable recently. On 27 May, he nearly condemned Israel directly.

He said: “We condemn the appalling strikes on a supposed ‘safe zone’ in Rafah. The Labour Party have opposed an Israeli offensive in Rafah for months.”

As far as I can tell, this was the first time Lammy has condemned Israel after nearly eight months of slaughter in Gaza.


David Lammy: Washington’s man in Labour



A month into Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Lammy abstained on the British parliament’s vote calling for a ceasefire. He also indicated that shadow ministers who voted in favour of the motion would have to resign.

Days later, he visited Israel and called for a “longer pause” in the war but not a ceasefire. Then Labour policy shifted from calling for a “humanitarian pause” in the war to a “sustained ceasefire” or a “sustainable ceasefire”.

Now Lammy calls for an “immediate ceasefire”. But how might this come about, given Israel is clearly bent on further war? Lammy still hasn’t publicly supported ending UK arms exports to Israel despite telling parliament on 20 May that he would support suspending such sales if Israel attacked Rafah.

Lammy has never mentioned in parliament, as far as I can tell, the key areas of military support that Britain is providing to Israel. He has made no calls to end the UK’s training of Israeli military officers in Britain, the Royal Air Force’s spy flights over Gaza or the role played by 80 Britons fighting in the Israeli military, as revealed by Declassified

The furthest Lammy has gone to uphold international law is in urging Israel to comply with the “urgent provisional measures” contained in the International Court of Justice’s ruling on genocide, and in also urging Israel to ensure the delivery of aid to Gaza. 


Why are Lammy and Labour so supportive of Israel, despite the extent of its atrocities and British public opposition to the attacks on Gaza? 

One reason is that Lammy is Washington’s man in Labour and cannot be seen to upset policy-makers in the US who consistently facilitate Israel’s onslaught on Palestinians. 

Lammy has constantly signalled that Labour foreign policy under his leadership will deviate little from Washington’s priorities, and he has been a regular visitor to a string of elite, establishment fora in the US.

The other reason is that Lammy is, like 20 percent of his fellow Labour MPs, a recipient of funds from the Israel lobby. Since becoming an MP in 2000, he has accepted donations from the Israel lobby on numerous occasions, the value amounting to £32,550, Declassified has found.

Lammy is also a supporter of the Labour Friends of Israel group, which works to promote the interests of Israel within the Labour Party.


David Lammy: Friend of Israel


‘Progressive realism’

Lammy’s dilemma is that he’s been trying to distance himself from government policy over Israel – when little difference exists – while at the same time trying to reassure elite audiences that there will be no serious change in British foreign policy under Labour.

Labour’s 2024 election manifesto, released on Thursday, is noticeable mainly for its adherence to traditional British establishment policies. Labour says it has an “absolute” commitment to the UK’s nuclear arms, an “unshakeable” commitment to NATO, and is “fully committed to AUKUS”, the new trilateral security partnership with Australia and the US. 

The manifesto also commits Labour to the current government policy of spending 2.5% of GDP on the military, says the US is an “indispensable ally” and that “our special relationship is crucial for security and prosperity”. 

Traditionally a strong supporter of arms exports, “Labour will support industry to benefit from export opportunities, in line with a robust arms export regime committed to upholding international law”, the manifesto states.

Lammy’s strategy has also been on show in his recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, a publication of the US establishment think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. 

In the article, Lammy says he wants to promote a new framework for Labour’s foreign policy, calling it “progressive realism”. 

In paragraph two he references CIA director William Burns – which is probably no mistake given Lammy’s willingness to cultivate the Anglo-American intelligence services.

Lammy then defines progressive realism as “using realist means to pursue progressive ends… but instead of using the logic of realism solely to accumulate power, progressive realism uses it in service of just goals – for example, countering climate change, defending democracy and advancing the world’s economic development”.  

Two “great foreign secretaries” are invoked by Lammy as illuminating a “path to a progressive realist foreign policy”. One is Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary under Clement Attlee, one of whose attributes, Lammy writes, is that he “persuaded” Attlee to acquire nuclear arms for Britain. 

In fact, Bevin’s foreign policy entailed a massive new economic exploitation of colonial resources in Africa and launched one of Britain’s most brutal wars, which began in Malaya in 1948.

Meanwhile, Robin Cook, Lammy’s second choice as a great foreign secretary, “brought human rights into the diplomatic mainstream”, he writes. One of Cook’s attributes was that he “marshalled the British government’s allies to fight against war crimes in Kosovo”. Lammy claims.

Yet Cook aligned Britain to the Kosovo Liberation Army in the war of 1999, the leading members of which are now being tried at The Hague for war crimes. 

As Blair’s foreign secretary, Cook continued to arm some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Lammy recognises this in his article only by saying that “Cook’s vision of adding more ethics to foreign policy at times snagged on the limits of idealism”.


Israel lobby funded a quarter of British MPs



Lammy describes as “chaotic”, “errors” and “failures” the military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – rather than catastrophic imperialism. But he still doesn’t rule out further wars, saying that “inaction has high costs, too”. 

Lammy has made perfectly clear Labour’s position on the Ukraine war. “There may be a change in the UK government this year”, Lammy tweeted last month, “ but with Labour there will be no change in the UK’s financial, military, diplomatic and political support for Ukraine”.

In his article he writes that British foreign policy will “always be founded on the country’s relations with the United States and Europe”. This is a statement of clear intent: but why should the UK’s foreign policy always be founded on relations with the US, given the calamities it has entailed in recent decades?

He also laments cuts in the size of the British army, writing that “the British army has fewer soldiers than at any point since the Napoleonic era”.

Lammy goes on to deprecate the rise of China which “has ended the era of US hegemony”. He laments that UK government policy has “oscillated” towards the rising power in recent years. 

Rather, he says Labour “must instead adopt a more consistent strategy, one that simultaneously challenges, competes against and cooperates with China as appropriate”. This sounds a lot like an oscillating policy.

Lammy also repeats the assertion that the UK is a “development superpower”, a role that the Conservative government has undermined, he claims. How it is possible to square this with the fact that the UK and its overseas territories are the world’s largest tax havens, draining countries around the world of billions in revenues, is not mentioned.

Perhaps incredibly, Lammy refers in his article to Israel as one country he sees as a “vital partner” for Britain. This, after it has murdered tens of thousands of Palestinians and is accused of genocide. 

Lammy is being advised by Ben Judah, a former columnist at the Jewish Chronicle and senior figure at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based establishment body that “galvanises US leadership” in the world.

Don’t expect serious foreign policy change under Labour or any real commitment to human rights or international law, even when lawyers are in office.