What’s happened to Labour's passion and principle when the only way was ethics?

By Martin Bright, September 28, 2012

There was a time, not so long ago, when you knew where you stood with Labour Party foreign policy. Remember 1997 and that headline in the Observer: "Goodbye Xenophobia"? Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy may now be lost in the mists of New Labour nostalgia, but it was an inspirational rallying cry.

This was a break with Foreign Office realpolitik, we were told, and Labour would now develop policy according to principle. Mr Cook famously resigned over the decision to go to war in Iraq. But this itself was driven by another principle: the so-called "Blair Doctrine" of humanitarian intervention, developed in his Chicago speech of 1999. For some, this was the ultimate expression of an ethical foreign policy, for others its very betrayal.

Labour's fall from grace can be traced, at least in part, to the Iraq intervention of 2003. Despite the election victory of 2005, the fallout from the war poisoned the last Labour government. It is no surprise, therefore, that Ed Miliband wished to distance himself from his predecessors in order to boost internal morale within the party. That he chose the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the iconic symbol of that differentiation was unfortunate. His leadership acceptance speech two years ago when he singled out Israel for attack was deeply unfortunate, but it was no accident. What more definitive way of signalling a break with the past than rejecting the Zionism of the Blair-Brown era?

Mr Miliband has since made huge efforts to win over the Jewish community, including a speech to Labour Friends of Israel emphasising his own family's close links to the country that gave it refuge. He even said he would not be here today if it were not for Israel.

Then came last year's Labour Party conference and the unilateral announcement that the leadership would be backing the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. This was a genuine departure in Labour policy and something that was particularly hard to stomach for Israel's friends in the Cabinet. As Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander's role in the shift in Labour policy has been somewhat mysterious. This time last year, he was only eight months into the job and we were told he was still "bedding in" to the role. Now, he is still "not quite ready" to address JC readers on Labour's foreign policy.

Douglas Alexander is the very model of a cautious politician and he knows that whatever he says about the Middle East is likely to be contentious. He has talked tough on Iran and Syria, but then it is hard to see how a British politician who wanted to be taken seriously could do anything else. He has loyally turned up at Labour Friends of Israel receptions and will do so again at Labour's conference in Manchester next week. He visited Israel and the West Bank in December 2011 and expressed his view that it was important to pursue peace.

But where is the passion? Where is the principle? Labour may be embarrassed by the idea of an ethical foreign policy, it may have turned away from the principle of humanitarian intervention. But what has been put in its place? When you're ready, Mr Alexander, we'd love to hear from you.

Last updated: 11:45am, September 28 2012