UK election 2019: Where do political parties stand on the Middle East?

UK election 2019: Where do political parties stand on the Middle East?
Brexit has dominated Britain's political landscape since 2016. But with general elections coming up, what can voters expect from the three main parties on foreign policy and the Middle East?
9 min read
04 December, 2019
There are clear foreign policy divides in the manifestos of Britain's three main parties. [Getty]
The 2016 Brexit referendum produced a seismic shift in British society, generating new political identities and crystallising social divisions around immigration, national identity and Britain's role in the world.

Dominating the national political landscape ever since, three chaotic years of snap elections and leadership changes, unsuccessful parliamentary votes and deadline extensions, have failed to produce any tangible progress.

Now, on December 12, Britain is set to hold a general election – and Brexit will dominate proceedings.

One of many issues Brexit has eclipsed is the foreign policy of what is after all a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But given the lack of substantive discussion on such a key issue, what can voters expect from the main parties in the international arena?

While Middle East foreign policy in the two-party system had become largely indistinguishable in the Blair, Brown, Cameron, May sequence of national leadership, clear divides have emerged in the new manifestos of the three main parties.

Amid an election narrowly defined through the prism of Brexit, we delve into the manifestos of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats to see how their pledges could impact the Middle East and beyond.

Largely focused through this narrow prism of Brexit, the Conservative manifesto lacks any substantive position, or mention, of key issues in the Middle East
There are few specific Conservative commitments on foreign policy


For Boris Johnson, at the helm of a Conservative party captured by Eurosceptic fanatics, the objective of the elections is clear; obtain a majority that will enable the prime minister to push through his Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

As such, the cautious 59-page manifesto focuses on the NHS, schools and policing – which all faced severe cuts under Conservative austerity measures – but the main theme is to 'Get Brexit Done'.

In power for the past nine years, the Conservative party makes no significant departures in its manifesto from previous foreign policy, and offers a status quo driven blueprint.

Striking a quasi-nationalistic tone, the manifesto promises to "strengthen Britain in the world" and "put our national security first" through the "strength of the Armed Forces" and "our alliances with like-minded democracies".

Despite such rhetoric, there are few specific commitments on foreign policy.

Largely focused through the narrow prism of Brexit, the Conservative manifesto lacks any substantive position, or mention, of key issues in the Middle East.

But in a post-Brexit world, Johnson could seek greater alignment with the US administration of Donald Trump, despite pursuing a transactional and nationalistic foreign policy that is sceptical of the traditional transatlantic alliance.

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Israel-Palestine: Beyond a pledge to "maintain our support for a two-state solution" in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not mentioned. 

Arms sales: The Conservative party makes no mention of arms sales in its manifesto. 

Yet official figures show the government has signed off on nearly £2 billion worth of arms sales to repressive regimes since the 2017 election, including £719 million in UK licences to Saudi Arabia alone for weapons used in Yemen.

A UK court ruled in June that it was illegal for the government to license weapons exports to Saudi Arabia without first assessing whether there was an "historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law".

Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia: Absent altogether from the manifesto is any mention of the wars in Syria and Yemen, relations with Saudi Arabia, or the Iran nuclear deal. 

The only reference to global conflict is a pledge to "continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in current or former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East".

Refugees: The Conservatives pledge to "continue to grant asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution, with the ultimate aim of helping them to return home if it is safe to do so", without stating specific numbers.

Other issues: Egregious human rights violations, such as the Uighur and Rohingya crises, are not highlighted, with the manifesto conceptualising major security threats in terms of "terrorism, rogue states and malign non-state actors".

Multilateralism: The Conservatives make no mention of military intervention, or the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war, but an emphasis is placed on continued cooperation with international multilateral institutions such as the UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, Five Eyes, the G20, the G7, and the World Trade Organisation, without mentioning cooperation with Europe.

Defence spending: All three main party manifestos pledge to keep defence spending at 2 percent of GDP, while all commit to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Labour's manifesto goes beyond a narrow Brexit mandate, promising significant public investment, a Green New Deal, and a justice-based 'new internationalism'
Labour promises to put "human rights, international law and tackling climate change" at the heart of their foreign policy


The manifesto of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party, long ambiguous and divided on Brexit, aims to galvanise both Remainers and Leavers with a promise to 'Get Brexit sorted', proposing a softer Brexit deal than Johnson's within six months and a second referendum. 

It also goes well beyond a narrow Brexit mandate, promising significant public investment, a Green New Deal, and a justice-based "new internationalism".

Despite past concerns over Corbyn's stance on Syria, military interventionism, and a potential upending of traditional Western alliances, Labour's manifesto champions an ambitious human rights-led foreign policy approach which focuses on major global conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Labour promises to put "human rights, international law and tackling climate change" at the heart of their foreign policy, ending the "bomb first, talk later" approach to security.

The party also criticises "the outsourcing of UK foreign policy to US President Donald Trump", while seeking to redress some of Britain's colonial legacy.

Israel-Palestine: The Labour manifesto promises to "immediately recognise the state of Palestine," while calling for a two-state solution to the conflict which ensures "a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine".

It calls for a resolution to the conflict "on the basis of justice and international law" and calls for an end to "the blockade, occupation and settlements, and an end to rocket and terror attacks".

Arms sales: The Labour manifesto calls to "immediately suspend the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen and to Israel for arms used in violation of the human rights of Palestinian civilians".

It says it will also reform arms exports so "ministers can never again turn a blind eye to British-made weapons being used to target innocent civilians".

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Syria: Labour pledges to "reform the international rules-based order to secure justice and accountability for breaches of human rights and international law, such as the bombing of hospitals in Syria […]"

It also criticises the "treatment of the Kurdish people in Syria, including by Turkey".

Yemen: In addition to banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Labour manifesto criticises the Conservatives "disastrous foreign policy" in Yemen, promising to "ensure humanitarian aid is provided according to need, not whether the UK has commercial or other interests in the country".

It also criticises the "indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in Yemen".

Military intervention: The party promises to introduce a War Powers Act "to ensure that no prime minister can bypass Parliament to commit to conventional military action" and pledges to implement "every single recommendation of the Chilcot Inquiry".

British Empire: Labour promises to conduct an audit of "Britain's colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule".

It also promises to "allow the people of the Chagos Islands and their descendants the right to return to the lands from which they should never have been removed" and "recognise the rights of the people of Western Sahara", a disputed territory annexed by Morocco.

The manifesto also pledges to apologise for the 1919 Amritsar massacre and hold a public review into Britain's role.

Refugees: Labour says it will "work with others to resume rescue missions in the Mediterranean, co-operate with the French authorities to put an end to the horrific camps, and establish safe and legal routes for asylum seekers".

Once in Britain, "refugees will have the right to work, access to public services and will be treated humanely by government at all levels".

Rendition: Labour promises to "establish a judge-led inquiry into our country’s alleged complicity in rendition and torture, and the operation of secret courts".

Other issues: The Labour manifesto criticises the Conservatives for failing to play a "constructive role in resolving the world's most pressing humanitarian crises, including in Kashmir, Yemen and Myanmar, and the escalation of tensions with Iran".

It also criticises the "total inaction and apathy" of the government to "the treatment of the Kurdish people in Syria, including by Turkey, and of the Uighurs in China", and condemns "the use of rape as a weapon of war against the Rohingya community in Myanmar".

The Conservative government is also criticised for "refusing to criticise Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi".

The Liberal Democrats pledge to 'renew international liberalism', presenting an engaged and humanitarian approach to foreign policy without ideological excesses
The Liberal Democrats pledge to "renew international liberalism"

Liberal Democrats 

Jo Swinson's Liberal Democrats are the party of remain, pledging in their manifesto to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit.

Presenting themselves as champions of the rule-based liberal order, the manifesto presents Europe as a key vehicle to projecting British power and influence in the world, lamenting the rise of "nationalism and authoritarianism" while pledging to "renew international liberalism".

The manifesto presents an engaged and humanitarian approach to foreign policy, working with multilateral organisations such as the EU, UN, NATO, and the WTO, without ideological excesses.

Lamenting Brexit as undermining "our ability to shape world events", the Liberal Democrats promise to "tear down walls" and want Britain to play a "leading role as part of a coalition of liberal democracies".

Israel-Palestine: The Liberal Democrats promise to "officially recognise the independent state of Palestine" and remain committed to a two-state solution.

They also condemn "violence on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support Israel's right to security".

Arms sales: The Liberal Democrats will "suspend UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to their consistent targeting of civilians, in breach of international humanitarian law, in Yemen".

The party will also control "arms exports to countries with poor human rights records" and "improve control of arms exports, including by introducing a policy of 'presumption of denial' for arms exports to countries listed as Human Rights Priority Countries in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's annual human rights report".

Iran deal: The Liberal Democrats will "work with the EU to revive the Iran nuclear deal".

Military intervention: The Liberal Democrats "believe that despite efforts to prevent violent conflict, sometimes military intervention is necessary" and "legislate to ensure there is a parliamentary vote before engaging in military action, while preserving the ability to engage in action in emergencies or under treaty obligation without requiring parliamentary approval".

There is no mention of the Chilcot Inquiry

Syria: The Liberal Democrats vow to "cooperate internationally to stabilise the region and provide humanitarian assistance".

Refugees: The Liberal Democrats promise to "provide safe and legal routes to sanctuary in the UK by resettling 10,000 vulnerable refugees each year and a further 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children from elsewhere in Europe over the next ten years, and expanding family reunion rights".

Rendition: The Liberal Democrats promise to "work to end the use of torture around the world and conduct a full inquiry into the UK Government's involvement in torture and rendition".

Charlie Hoyle is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter @CharlieCHoyle