Foreign Policy: Miliband Minds The Gap

The Labour Leader seeks to beef up his foreign affairs credentials


Ed Miliband is looking to beef up his foreign affairs credentials. But could the fate of this man complicate things? 

Back in January 2011 as the Arab Spring was beginning to stir, Ed Miliband was giving an interview to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. A Conservative commentator afterwards claimed that before going on air, the Labour leader had asked BBC staffers: “By the way, what’s been happening in Tunisia? I know absolutely nothing about it.”

While the story may not have been true, it rather sums up Miliband’s attitude to foreign policy over the years. Like many of his predecessors, Miliband had little grounding in international relations before becoming opposition leader, and has chosen to focus on domestic affairs ever since. Although he made much of his opposition to military action in Syria in 2013, he subsequently declined to sketch out a detailed approach to the Middle East and made only vague efforts to outline his ideas about foreign relations in general.

But in the heat of the general election campaign, Miliband today reversed course and gave a major speech on foreign policy at the Chatham House think tank. This decision was likely borne of events, with the media focussed on the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. However significant international issues – particularly Britain’s place in Europe and its deteriorating relationship with Russia – lurk in the background of this election. The Labour leader probably recognised he needs to say something about them if he is to seal the deal with voters still sceptical about his leadership.

Indeed, Miliband’s speech at times felt more like a checklist of issues he had to cover off than a serious discussion on foreign policy priorities. Ukraine; ISIS; a possible Brexit; climate change: all were rammed into an address loosely built around the theme of a ‘genuine and hard-headed multilateralism’. The subsequent Q&A revealed only limited detail about Miliband’s views on each of these global challenges. Lobby correspondents were more interested in a political fracas developing around his speech than the issues at hand.

That said, today’s speech did generate a bit of hard news. Miliband spoke out against Britain leaving the EU at the very moment HSBC warned it could leave the UK over uncertainty on this issue, giving him a rare bit of credibility with big business. Miliband also appeared to dilute plans to recognise a Palestinian state, saying this should only be done at a time when it might best help the peace process.

Yet even as Miliband attempts to burnish his authority on global issues, he has a big headache. The man who would be his Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, is struggling to hold his seat in Scotland. Miliband has largely outsourced foreign affairs issues to his colleague, with whom he has a complex but close relationship. If Alexander is knocked out by the SNP surge but his party gets into government, the Labour leader will have to move quickly to avoid the impression he remains a foreign policy novice. 

Photograph: Douglas Alexander


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