Isa Boja

The UK’s general election and what its likely outcome – a Labour Party government – can mean for Kosova

Zërat July 04, 2024 - 23:06
About the author: Isa serves the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora of the Republic of Kosova. From London, UK, Boja specializes in foreign affairs. Bylines include some of the UK’s biggest publications.

Today, July 4th, the UK’s electorate voted on who will be No.10 Downing Street’s incumbent for the next five years. The current Conservative Party Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, or his opposition, the Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer.

Recent polling, as recent as July 2nd, projects Labour winning the general election with a 425-seat majority in the House of Commons, while the Conservatives, far behind with 108 seats. The Liberal Democrats, historically the country’s third-largest party – and sometimes hard to differ from their Conservative rivals on the political spectrum – are projected to secure 67 seats. Should the actual election result reflect polling, it will mark the end of over 13 years of Conservative government.

The House of Commons, the UK Parliament's lower house, consists of 650 democratically elected Members of Parliament (MPs). Seats are distributed based on electoral boundaries and population size across Great Britain’s four nations, with England receiving the largest share, followed by Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The elections use the first-past-the-post system, where each constituency elects one MP, and the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether they achieve an outright majority.

The polls also indicate results significantly different from the last general election in 2019. Labour is set to gain 223 seats, while the Conservatives are expected to lose 257 seats and the Liberal Democrats to gain 56 seats. Scotland’s leading party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, advocates for Scottish independence and is projected to gain 20 seats this election, down 28 from the previous one. Nicola Sturgeon and Hamza Yusuf, the party's recent leaders and Scottish First Ministers, resigned amid corruption allegations and gender identity politics, respectively. The Green Party, focusing on environmentalism, and Plaid Cymru, advocating Welsh independence, are anticipated to roughly maintain their seat counts from 2019.

The last general election – also a snap election – widely regarded as one on Britain’s Brexit deal, saw Boris Johnson win the Conservatives a comfortable majority, Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour to electoral downfall, and the Liberal Democrats leader, Jo Swinson, unseated. Since, Corbyn, with antisemitism allegations against his name, has been banned from running as a Labour candidate in elections. Running as an independent, popular for his social democratic politics, Corbyn is projected to win his constituency of Islington North, London.

Regardless of which of the two parties that make up the UK’s two-party system – the Conservatives and Labour – emerge victorious, this much-anticipated election is expected to produce historic results either way. If Sunak retains power, he would be the first prime minister in modern history to do so after trailing the opposition by some 20 points upon his announcement of the election back in May. On the other hand,

if Starmer leads Labour to victory, it would result in a majority even larger than his predecessor's, Tony Blair’s, 1997 landslide. Also, if Labour achieves this projected historic win, it would build on the party's earlier gains in local and mayoral elections this year which saw Sadiq Khan, London Mayor, win a third consecutive term.

In May of 1997, Blair won Labour a 419-seat majority, ousting the then-Conservative Prime Minister John Major. The win ushered in a New Labour government and a prime minister who changed the course of British and world politics over the following decade, including that of Kosova’s. Blair's New Labour aimed to modernise the party by shifting from traditional socialist policies to a more centrist and pragmatic approach. His leadership, ending in 2007 to give way to Gordon Brown, emphasised economic liberalism, social reform, and a pro-European stance; however, tarnished by the Chilcot Inquiry which found that Britain’s decision to invade Iraq in was based on flawed intelligence.

Perhaps even more alarmingly for the Tories – the colloquial term of Irish descent to nickname Conservatives – is that polls also suggest that Sunak will end up being the first prime minister in British history to be unseated from his very own constituency seat come election day. This bleak prospect for the Tories is in addition to other indications of a party wipeout.

12 out of the 26 members of Sunak’s Cabinet face high risks of losing their seats. This includes Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary. Other prominent Tory figures like Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Kosova advocate Alicia Kearns also face uncertain prospects. This follows a huge swarm of household Tory names stepping down at the election, including Theresa May, former Prime Minister, Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Housing, and Dominic Raab, former Deputy Prime Minister.

And with the expected collapse of the Blue Wall – the traditional Tory-supporting constituencies that consistently voted for the Conservative in previous elections – another indication is that former Tory frontbenchers are preparing for opposition roles with an eye on potentially contending for the Conservative leadership, should Sunak fail to keep the party in power on Thursday. Namely, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, former Home Secretaries, respectively, infamous for their staunch support of the highly controversial and internationally condemned Rwanda immigration policy, Britain’s withdrawal from the 1951 Convention, and involvement in anti-Palestine protests that swarmed London in recent months.

The Rwanda policy, proposed by the current Conservative government, aims at deterring illegal migration and asylum claims in the UK. The policy involves relocating individuals deemed illegal immigrants or asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement. It has received condemnation in the UK and abroad and is said to shamelessly break away from Britain’s tradition of welcoming migrants. The 1951 Convention, referring to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, supplemented by the 1967 Protocol, safeguards the rights of migrants and asylum seekers through three principles: Non-discrimination, Non-penalization, and Non-refoulement. The Convention is what helped Albanian-Kosovars escape political oppression and ethnic cleansing during the 1980s and 1990s.

But perhaps a more alarming indicator of the Tories, already bereft of their election betting scandal, is the performance of Reform UK in the polls. Projected to win 5 seats, the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, practices the far-right nationalist and protectionist ideologies akin to those that propelled Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 US presidential election and influenced the Brexit vote – and it is proving rather effective. They are predicted to win 17% of the national vote, 3% less than the Conservatives.

However, Starmer, backed by many of the UK’s billionaires, formerly the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service – Britain’s prosecutorial bodies – and his party are cautious of becoming complacent and tying too much hope on favourable election forecasts and the Conservatives campaign blunders. Instead, they are focusing on a passionate and somewhat aggressive "every constituency" campaign strategy, while the Conservatives, acknowledging their slim electoral chances, are concentrating on safeguarding their traditional safe Tory seats from swinging to the opposition, including to Reform UK. Sunak and Starmer conducted several live, head-to-head debates, the last being on June 26th, which saw Labour's poll rating increase and Reform UK almost eclipsing that of the Tories.

Regardless of what the polling and unfolding of events leading to election day may suggest for Britain’s future, a lot has happened since the last general election which makes this week’s one, oddly coinciding with US Independence Day, all the more important. The UK’s exit from the EU, the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the spiralling cost-of-living crisis, and the War in Gaza have altered the British political debate. Politically unhinged is the fact that, during this time, the UK has had three Conservative prime ministers under one parliamentary mandate.

The three Tory prime ministers in question: Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak. Johnson won the 2019 parliamentary majority (of 365 seats) but resigned in 2022 after the 'Partygate' scandal, where he and his political staff flaunted Covid-19 lockdown measures. Truss succeeded him after a Tory Party leadership contest but resigned as Prime Minister just weeks into office following the disastrous mortgage policy.

The last of the three prime ministers is Sunak and remarkable, at least for Kosova, amidst his relatively unremarkable premiership, is the re-emergence of David Cameron to mainstream British politics. Appointed Foreign Secretary to the surprise of many, Cameron's first trip abroad in 2024 was to Kosova, reaffirming the UK's long-term commitment to Kosova's independence, Westphalian sovereignty, and KFOR protection. Cameron’s visit not only charmingly reassured Kosova’s government but also serves as a testament to the broader point that regardless of which of the two main parties is in power, Kosova has a strong and reliable ally in Britain.

David Cameron, former Conservative Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016, first entered No. 10 Downing Street through a coalition with the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg. Pressured by the Eurosceptics in his party and bolstered by the Conservative majority he won in 2015, Cameron called for a Brexit referendum in 2016. After campaigning to remain in the EU and losing the vote, he resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded by Theresa May.

But this reliability is to fortify with a Labour government headed by Starmer and, more specifically, David Lammy, the party’s bid for Foreign Secretary.

Labour’s manifesto pledges many changes, including a shift in the UK’s approach to foreign policy. Progressive realism is Labour’s chosen way to “reconnect Britain” to a world that is increasingly conflict-ridden and multipolar, significantly different from when the party gained power in 1997 when the UK’s economy was larger than that of China and India combined.

Progressive realism advocates using realist measures to pursue progressive ends. In the most basic sense, this means that state actors employ practical, pragmatic strategies. These strategies, the realist means, are directed towards achieving goals aimed at social improvement, both nationally and internationally, the progressive ends. In other words, progressive realism is the conceptual marriage of realism and liberalism, aiming to achieve ambitious, socially beneficial goals through practical and realistic methods.

Examples of progressive realism in action: the use of international military intervention to topple authoritarian regimes, as in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, or, in Kosova's case, NATO's intervention to prevent Milosevic's total annihilation of ethnic Albanians – an effort co-led with the US by Labour under Blair and his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, among many other champions of Kosova's cause.

For Lammy, progressive realism is also “the pursuit of ideals without delusions about what is achievable”, requiring “tough-minded honesty about the UK, the balance of power, and the state of the world”, as per his foreign affairs proposal. The “just goals” and “ideals” he refers to are the global issues of “countering climate change, defending democracy, and advancing the world’s economic development.” This strategy not only recognises but also seeks to address the “broadening group of states,” such as Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, that are now “the world’s rising powers”, notwithstanding Xi Jinping and Putin’s active threat to the International Liberal Order.

In practical terms, Lammy aims to pursue a UK-EU security pact, in line with the need for European Strategic Autonomy, and, unsurprisingly, steadfast support for NATO. However, critics, not just the Conservatives, cite Labour’s manifesto for foreign policy as lacking ambition. “If Ukraine is to avoid defeat, if peace is to come to Palestine, if an increasingly aggressive China is to be seriously deterred, bolder, braver agenda-setting and change-making steps are required,” critiques the Observer’s Chief Foreign Affairs commentator, Simon Tisdall.

Interestingly, while the Labour Party has not yet firmly committed to increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP (with 2% being the current NATO target), the Conservatives have with their competing manifesto, emphasising security as a major theme of their election campaign.

For Kosova, nevertheless, a Labour government with a progressive realist stance on foreign affairs and policy, in contrast to the Tories neoconservative approach, will be largely beneficial. Economic development, democratic governance, and adherence to conventional Western norms of global politics like human rights and the Responsibility to Protect, are central to this perspective, aligning with Kosova’s domestic needs and international interests, including transatlantic security commitments, support for international recognition, and efforts toward normalisation of relations with Serbia, which have lagged under EU-led mediation efforts.

Beyond foreign policy, Labour’s pledge for immigration is not entirely different from that of the Conservatives. Except for scrapping Sunak’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, Starmer will leave in place many of the measures the Conservatives have taken to cut UK net migration – something both parties agree needs to be dramatically reduced. What this means for Kosova, however, is a potential Labour government that may be reluctant to support visa liberalisation for Kosovars – an initiative which the Kosova Government, particularly its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, should pursue given the recent liberalisation in the Schengen zone.

In the broader context of world politics, Lammy could soon find himself sharing the world stage with Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

During last week’s first debate leading up to November’s presidential election, Trump, whom the US Supreme Court has ruled has some immunity for official actions while in the White House, called his Democratic rival and presidential successor, Joe Biden, “a bad Palestinian,” and is currently polling almost neck-and-neck with Biden in most major polls for the 47th US presidency. Similarly, across the Atlantic, on Sunday, Le Pen won her party, National Rally, the first round of voting for the French National Assembly, securing some 30% of the vote – a big blow to President Macron’s re-election bid.

If Trump and Le Pen win their respective elections while a Labour government is in power in the UK, misalignment in their respective foreign policies on global frontier issues, including the frozen conflict between Kosova and Serbia, is expected.

Lammy’s progressive realism contrasts sharply with the pragmatic realism pursued by Trump and Le Pen.

Trump is likely to approach foreign policy as he did during his first term: protectionist and American-first, treating bilateral and multilateral relations parallel to his big business dealings. Concerning is also his NATO scepticism and likely reinstatement of Richard Grenell who proved disastrous for Kosova’s national and international interests.

Le Pen adopts a similar approach to foreign policy; more troublesome, however, is her openly far-right stance on European politics, including her distaste for EU enlargement. Her National Rally party which her late father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an open racist, has even questioned the very existence of countries in the Balkans, including Kosova. To Kosova’s concern, more importantly, Le Pen believes that France would be much better off without NATO, so the French would be “no longer caught up in conflicts which are not [theirs]” – including a potential one between Kosova and Serbia.

Hence, with Trump back in the Oval Office and Le Pen in the Élysée Palace, there's a risk of the US and France diverging from their longstanding alignment on Kosova with the British.

Conversely, a more positive outlook for Kosova would be Lammy, Macron, and Biden leading the Western allies’ foreign policy agenda. Although not guaranteed to favour Kosova’s interests, this likelihood is high compared to the aforementioned scenario, at least conceptually based on the three’s shared adoption of progressive realism in global politics. After all, the international community, historically, has only effectively served Kosova’s interests through collective, multilateral efforts, namely the West's liberation of Kosova in 1998-99, even despite the lack of unanimous support from the UN Security Council.

More promising is that the anticipated Labour government in the UK would complement the premiership of Albin Kurti in Kosova. International relations, whether bilateral or multilateral, are often shaped and strengthened by the relationships of key policymakers involved. There’s a term to describe this phenomenon: personal diplomacy. Lammy and Kurti have it. Both adhere to a social democratic, ideologically left, and post-colonial philosophy – and this is also reflected in their relationship in practice. In October of last year, Kurti addressed the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool: “[The Labour Party’s] influence on the fate of my country, Kosova, has been notable and impactful. Arguably, the two most important moments for Kosova were in 1999 and 2008, during which Labour was in power.” Vetevendosje polled to win the next Kosova general election describes the UK’s Labour Party as its “sister party” and in February, Kurti, together with Lammy, attended the opening ceremony of the “Labour Friends of Kosova” group set up by British MPs to “strengthen the relationship between British Kosovars with the Labour Party” and “promote a strong bilateral relationship with the UK and Kosova”.

The political alignment between the two politicians, between the two parties, in the broader context of the UK’s longstanding support for Kosova, may perhaps be the leading, most impactful outcome of a likely Labour government for Europe’s youngest country.

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