What Starmer's Labour victory means for UK policy in the Middle East

Illustration - Analysis - Labour foreign policy
7 min read
08 July, 2024

As expected, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party won a majority in the UK General Election on 4 July, marking the collapse of the Conservative Party after 14 years in government.

Labour’s majority in parliament, with 411 seats out of 650, means the party will have significant influence over parliamentary decisions going forward.

Labour has mostly gained power at the expense of plummeting support for the Conservatives, amid widespread opinion that the party had mismanaged the economy, Covid-19, and Brexit – and a relatively low voter turnout of 60%.

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However, with Starmer aligning Labour toward the political centre, it’s widely anticipated that Britain’s foreign policy won’t dramatically change under his leadership. Minor alterations are more likely than groundbreaking transformations.

“British foreign policy under the Labour Party won't differ much from that under the Conservatives. Keir Starmer's foreign policy will be characterised by continuity rather than discontinuity, including towards the Middle East,” Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, told The New Arab.

This, Gerges added, is largely due to constraints over the economy – which will be a priority to address rather than any ambitious foreign policy shifts – as well as Starmer’s centrist worldview, which is similar to that of US President Joe Biden.

However, in the probable event that major foreign policy issues remain unchanged, what exactly will this continuity mean in practice, particularly in the Middle East?

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Continued support for Israel

A notable aspect of Starmer’s approach to the Middle East is his stance on Israel and Palestine, particularly amid the war on Gaza. On 6 July, newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Lammy advocated for a “balanced position” on Israel and Gaza.

When he was leader of the opposition, Starmer had generally aligned with the Conservative government’s position, including upholding diplomatic and military support to Israel, initially justifying Israel’s “right to defend itself,” while hesitating on recognising Palestine.

Despite winning the election, Labour lost credibility in the eyes of many voters, particularly leftist and Muslim voters. That was echoed as Labour lost four MPs to pro-Palestinian independent candidates, while several other Labour MPs lost swathes of voters in their constituencies.

For instance, Starmer won around 18,000 votes in his constituency compared to 36,000 in 2019, many of which went to independent Andrew Feinstein. Meanwhile, Wes Streeting saw his majority slashed from over 9,000 to 528, almost losing to British-Palestinian candidate Leanne Mohamed.

Labour will therefore seek to balance domestic pressure and appeasing the Labour left with its commitments to align with Washington. Labour MPs are more likely to back a ceasefire in Gaza, given their past voting records during the Conservative government’s tenure, which showed greater support among Labour MPs.

With Starmer aligning Labour toward the political centre, it's widely anticipated that Britain's foreign policy won't dramatically change under his leadership. [Getty]

Yet given his cautious foreign policy approach, Starmer will likely avoid deviating from the US and will look to maintain Britain’s relations with Israel.

Indeed, in a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 7 July, Starmer stressed a “clear and urgent need for a ceasefire,” yet also mentioned his desires for “further deepening the close relationship” between Britain and Israel.  

“I doubt Starmer will recognise a Palestinian state without a green light from Washington. He is well-known to be pro-Israel and has cleansed the Labour Party of critical voices of Israel,” said Fawaz Gerges.

“It is doubtful Starmer will pursue any radical policies towards the Israel-Palestine conflict and will likely prefer the safe harbour of following in the footsteps of the United States.”

A potential wildcard might be legal pressure. In October, the UK High Court will review a case concerning British arms sales to Israel, lodged by the Palestinian legal group Al-Haq. A successful court ruling could legally force Britain to, at least temporarily, cut its arms trade with Israel.

The new Labour government may also reportedly drop its legal bid to delay the International Criminal Court (ICC) from making a decision on whether to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli PM Netanyahu, according to the Guardian.

"Keir Starmer's foreign policy will be characterised by continuity rather than discontinuity, including towards the Middle East"

Tensions with Iran

Labour’s alignment with US policies may also be evident in its approach to Iran. Labour’s manifesto pledged to label Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, while David Lammy and Home Secretary Yvette Cooper are believed to be in favour of a designation.

Such a proposal comes in line with the UK’s pledges to “update” the government’s “counter-terror” laws, which make it illegal to support or be a member of designated groups. Both Hamas and Hezbollah were also designated under the Conservative government.

Starmer has stated he would maintain Britain’s joint raids with the United States to strike Yemen’s Houthis, should they persist in their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthis assert their strikes are in solidarity with Gaza and they are targeting shipping affiliated with Israel.

Along with possibly designating the IRGC, Labour may also designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation.

Under his leadership, Starmer is also expected to side with Israel in any escalations with Iran. On 13 April, when Iran fired drones and missiles at Israeli territory following Israel’s bombing of Iran’s consulate in Syria weeks before, Starmer criticised the attack on Israeli territory.

This was accompanied by the UK air force intercepting Iranian missiles fired at Israel, alongside US forces. In the event of a greater flare-up in Israel-Hezbollah cross-border skirmishes, Starmer may also look to support Israel if the US does so as well.

Ultimately, the US position will likely have a significant impact on UK foreign policy, with both Starmer and Lammy expressing their commitment to work with whoever wins the November 2024 US Presidential elections.

Should Biden and the Democrats win a re-election, the tenuous situation with Iran will likely remain the same, in the absence of any unexpected developments. Yet should Donald Trump win and re-implement a confrontational policy towards Tehran that characterised his first term as president, Britain may get caught up in the crossfire of any worsening US-Iranian tensions.

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Economic, diplomatic partnerships

Starmer hasn’t yet explicitly addressed Britain’s engagement with the Arab Gulf states. However, in the Brexit era, London has strengthened ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including deepening security partnerships with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Oman, and commencing negotiations for a free-trade agreement (FTA).

As the UK in a Changing Europe think tank noted in February, London has struck various bilateral trade, energy and economic agreements with individual Gulf states since the 2016 Brexit referendum. That’s also included expanding Britain’s navy’s presence in Oman and Bahrain, as well as continuity of British arms sales to GCC member states. 

Given Starmer has committed to governing Britain outside of the European Union rather than rejoining the bloc - even if trade barriers are reduced - that may compel his government to pursue other economic partnerships. This would likely render the GCC, with which London has an estimated £62bn in bilateral trade, an increasingly important trading partner.

Lammy has also pledged to deepen London’s engagement with the Global South, which may entail more diplomacy and aid. In 2021, Johnson’s government slashed aid by £4 billion, from 0.7% to 0.5%, below the UN-mandated target. While Labour has pledged to raise it to 0.7%, the party has said it’ll do so when economic conditions are more favourable.

Yet Britain may face obstacles in deepening its engagement with the region, at least on a civil society level. As James Lynch wrote in the European Council on Foreign Relations, European nations and the UK’s support for Israel has damaged their reputation in the region, which could hinder cooperation with local NGOs and partners.

So, like at home, Labour will have to balance regional public opinion – and any efforts to revamp Britain’s soft power - with its desires to remain close to Washington.

Widely considered a middle power, albeit one with historic ties to the Middle East, Britain alone won’t be able to shape developments in the Middle East. Rather, it will simply react to them, largely influenced by regional tensions or any actions of the US. As a result, Starmer’s tenure is unlikely to result in any substantial foreign policy changes.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey