Last week’s UK general election returned the most diverse parliament in British history, with the highest-ever percentages of women (41%), members of ethnic minorities (14%), openly LGBTQ+ individuals (10%), and people educated at non-selective state secondary schools (63%). This bodes well for the new government’s focus on democratic renewal at home – inclusive politics now feels mainstream in the UK – but what can be expected in terms of Labour’s likely approach to global democracy issues?

Photo of Anthony Smith
Anthony Smith

There are three places to look for clues. The first is the international section of Labour’s election manifesto. It started with a theme that David Lammy, the new foreign secretary, has repeated many times: the need to reconnect the UK with the world to address “the threats we face, and to uphold human rights and international law … We will always act in our interests and defend our sovereignty and our democratic values.” The manifesto also committed to restoring Britain’s international development reputation based on “genuine respect and partnership with the global South”. Commitments to the rule of law, human rights, and the UN sustainable development goals were explicit, as was the promise to support Ukraine.

Photo of Graeme Ramshaw
Graeme Ramshaw

Second, Lammy’s articles and speeches, notably his essay on progressive realism and speech at the Institute for Government, have a strong focus on rebuilding and updating the UK’s relationships, with references to his Guyanese heritage and descent from enslaved people. In other remarks over the past year, he has emphasised the importance of international law and rule-of-law commitments as an entry point for establishing a shared international agenda, while the threats to democracy, particularly from Russia and the malign actors it sponsors, have been a consistent theme. More recently, he has made clear that all international work will need to support the government’s overarching priority of restoring UK economic growth.

Third, informal conversations with those now in government and their advisers have highlighted their shared interest in understanding the significance of the threats to global democracy, the international mechanisms for addressing them, and the practical steps the UK could take to do so. While the issues that dominated the election campaign were largely domestic, a greater emphasis on foreign policy is likely now the new government is in place.

Five Ideas for Democratic Resilience and Renewal

Given the significant challenges to global democracy, many observers and analysts will want to discuss how best to support democratic resilience and renewal internationally with the new UK government. Here are five initial ideas to start the debate.

First, develop a democratic governance strategy. The need for a more strategic approach has been clear for some time, along with consistent implementation of a strategy across the UK’s embassies and missions. Part of this approach should be more engagement with the EU and others to build on the new government’s commitment to “an improved and ambitious relationship with our European partners”.

Second, embrace localisation as a frame of analysis and a policy approach. This is consistent with the foreign secretary’s arguments about the need for the UK to learn from its past and reframe its relationships. The threats to democratic resilience come from malign actors within countries as well as external influences, and the most likely sources of renewal will also come from within. Pitching the struggle for democratic governance principally as a battle between global powers will not strengthen the narrative for locally driven change.

Third, lean into Britain’s reputation for generating evidence and convening. The UK’s strong stance on international development preceded the country’s achievement of the UN target of spending the equivalent of 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance. A strong policy direction and use of professional skills can help the country rebuild that reputation after recent cuts. Whatever the outcomes of other recent and future elections, it looks certain that greater UK engagement on democratic renewal will be needed, whether through supporting further summits, action in multilateral organisations, or national or regional initiatives.

Fourth, prioritise longer-term engagement. When developing the next wave of democracy support programming, the more that the UK can move away from short-term funding the better – it is inefficient and ineffective, and makes it hard to build the relationships of trust needed for successful partnerships. The UK’s impact will be stronger when its commitments are longer term and its decision-making is faster.

Finally, incentivise innovation by expanding the remit of the Centre of Expertise on Democratic Governance at the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), which is delivered in partnership with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It is clear that the democratic governance context is more complex than ever before, and traditional forms of democracy support have not always kept up. The new government could provide match funding for embassies and high commissions that are willing to test new approaches to supporting democratic resilience and renewal.

There has always been broad political consensus in the UK on democratic values and the importance of international engagement. But as in many other areas, there is also room for fresh approaches. Given the fiscal context in the UK, significant additional resources should not be expected, but the new government can work to show how serious these issues are and how the UK can have a greater impact.

 

Anthony Smith has been Chief Executive Officer of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy since 2014. He was previously a member of the UK Diplomatic Service and a Civil Servant.  Anthony served in the Embassy in Madrid and later worked on a range of European policy issues including the Balkans, trade policy and Common Foreign and Security Policy.  He later moved to the Department for International Development and worked on Environment Policy, Europe and Southern Africa, as well as being Private Secretary to Clare Short when she was Secretary of State for International Development.  He returned to the FCO as Director for European Political Affairs from 2006-2008 before becoming International Relations Director at DFID from 2008-2014.

Dr. Graeme Ramshaw is the Director of Quality and Innovation at Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). Before joining WFD, Graeme held various roles at public and private sector organisations such as, the World Bank, DFID, KPMG Development Advisory Services, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., and the Institute for Democracy in South Africa in Pretoria. His published work has featured in the Journal of Democracy, The Economist, and numerous conferences. Graeme holds a BA from Princeton University; a MA from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University; and a PhD from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

 

Photo credit: Konrad Laskowski, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, CC-BY-NC 2.0