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​What a difference a year makes. Labour’s international trade policies a year on

Global Trade
18 April 2023
Public Affairs
trade tuesday

In April 2022, my colleague James Surallie interviewed Labour Shadow Trade Minister, Nia Griffith MP. The interview examined Labour’s priorities for trade and how they had been brought through into policy. Griffith described how Labour’s focus could be split into three key areas: 1) improving the UK’s relationship with the European Union, 2) protecting individuals’ civil liberties and 3) the prioritisation of UK business interests in future trade agreements.    

​In the run up to the General Election next year, Labour is now keen to present its trade policies in these areas as a competent and workable alternative to the Conservatives and their legacy on trade policy in government. Hugh Matthews from SEC Newgate’s Trade team has taken a look at what Labour’s trade priorities are now and what difference a year makes.    

​While Nia Griffith remains one of the Shadow Trade Ministers, it has been Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy who has been leading on articulating Labour’s “progressive trade policy”, having been the frontman during the Party’s recent National Policy Forum Consultation on this policy area.   

​Moreover, he penned a recent pamphlet, Britain Reconnected, a key focus of which was rebuilding the UK’s relationship with the EU. In this, he argued that the Conservatives cut to international aid and former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ attitude to trade negotiations led to a growing rift between the UK and EU on trade policy. Given this, he argued the Labour Party would take a pragmatic, rather than ideological, approach to negotiating trade deals.    

​This aims to present Labour as a reliable alternative to the Conservatives and cut into their reputation as the party of trade. This was echoed by Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, following the UK’s plan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).    

​Taking this further, Labour is also seeking to develop a narrative around finding ‘common solutions’ regarding how civil liberties can be protected in UK trade policy. Their publication uses the example of China, noting how despite the Chinese government’s record on human rights, a Labour government would recognise its responsibility to maintain cooperation.  

This shows a clear continuation of Griffith’s logic regarding human rights, as Lammy highlights that the need for human rights can be discussed through trade negotiations. Nonetheless, Lammy’s commitment to pursuing China in the international courts regarding their treatment of Uyghurs, whilst also promoting trade highlights his view of the intersecting nature of trade (outside of his portfolio) and foreign relations (part of his remit as Shadow Foreign Secretary).   

​This extends to domestic business policy, as Labour seeks to outflank the Conservatives as the party of business and address industry concerns with the government’s trade strategy (or lack thereof). The Labour charm offensive is punctuated by Lammy’s view that the UK’s Brexit deals have done more to damage business confidence than redeem it, for example, 56% of firms are saying they are having difficulties adapting to new trading rules.  

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has gone further to elaborate on Labour’s commitment to re-negotiating Brexit trade deals, avowing that in order to increase exports for business the current deals need to be renegotiated. This highlights a clear crystallisation of Labour maintaining its commitment to prioritising British interests whilst also seeking to frame itself as being business-friendly, using it as a political tool to undermine the Conservatives.    

​In the year since our last look at the Labour Party’s trade policy, there has been a clear attempt to build on the core themes of improved EU relations, protection of civil liberties, and inclusion of business priorities. As the polls tighten, and the race for No.10 gets ever closer, it will be of keen interest to businesses and the electorate what Labour perceives to be important for its future trade policy, how it can support industrial/ business policy and how they seek to deliver this.