What does a Labour government mean for West Africa?

The Labour Party will assume control of the British government after a predicted landslide victory in the 4 July parliamentary elections. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, will become prime minister after winning 410 seats and establishing a 170-seat majority over the Conservatives, who will return to opposition after 14 years in power. The result was a largely foregone conclusion, especially as many polls in the run-up to the elections had predicted a Labour victory.


Nigeria’s long-standing historical and cultural ties with the UK, dating back to the colonial era, mean that the outcome of the elections will have an impact on its relations with the UK. In addition to Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia all share colonial ties with the UK. Given the extent of British involvement in foreign development aid, West Africa will be expectedly eager to see what a Labour government in the UK means for the region.


Return of Labour

Labour’s return to power shows the cyclical nature of British politics, especially as they return to power 14 years after a hung parliament in 2010 led to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Previously, Labour had led for 13 years, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and would form the official opposition during the Conservative tenures of David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and soon-to-be former prime minister, Rishi Sunak. Then, amidst a global economic crisis, the electorate handed power to a Conservative government that promised austerity but also showed faith in a Liberal Democrat party that had sought to carry out radical reform in the House of Lords and in voting processes.


Cameron’s efforts were rewarded with an outright victory in 2015, in part owing to his pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. This might have marked the beginning of the party’s descent into anti-migration politics and that, under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, it would begin carrying out more extensive deportation policies. Criticism over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing stress over the country’s national health service, and concern over economic proposals had added to growing opposition support. Furthermore, party infighting resulted in defections, forcing May and Johnson to call elections in 2017 and 2019 respectively in varying attempts to strengthen their positions. Recent leaders Truss and Sunak had been untested by voters, and this added to a growing challenge within the party.


Labour, historically anchored in the trade union movement and socialist organisations of the 19th century, has also dealt with its own internal party challenges. After the insurgent election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015, there was a clash between centrist and socialist members of the party, especially after accusations of anti-Semitism by the party’s leadership.


Labour’s election win, despite low personal popularity ratings for its leader, can be interpreted as more of an anti-government vote and less of a public vote supporting the party’s vision. This might make it difficult to determine the extent of support that Labour might have for its more radical policies.


What does this mean for Nigeria and West Africa?

A major policy focus that is not expected to change is the emphasis on development strictly through foreign policy. This approach followed Johnson’s decision to merge the government ministry responsible for international development with the foreign office in 2020. The department for international development was a legacy of Tony Blair’s first election win in 1997 and remains a major example of Labour’s commitment to the developing world. Despite an attempt to ensure a consolidated approach to foreign policy and development investment, the impact has been less than ideal for the UK’s global engagements. Foreign aid was slashed from 0.7% to 0.5% of the Gross National Income (GNI), and this reduced investment meant a significant reduction in funding to developing countries. The move was criticised by the UK’s National Audit Office, and hundreds of development leaders in the UK called for its reversal. The merger and the foreign aid budget slash were regarded as the UK turning its back on the world’s most vulnerable. 

Earlier in 2022, Keir Starmer appeared bullish about reversing the merger. But in 2023, amid a series of policy shifts, the Labour Party hinted at considering keeping the merger within the Foreign Office. David Lammy, widely expected to be foreign secretary, acknowledges the challenges posed by the merger but still believes that the two departments were more successful when working together. This has led to mixed signals about their definitive stance, with an expectation that the merger will remain for the time being.

Another major focus is expected to be migration, with Conservatives using this issue to prey on the lingering fears of unchecked migration into the UK. Nigerians are the second largest non-EU immigrants to the UK, with over 141,000 Nigerians making the move between June 2022 and 2023. This is not surprising, owing to educational and job opportunities. But recent Conservative policies have sought to remove the ability for dependents to follow students studying in the UK with the implementation of an immigration crackdown. Under the new policy, students, unless under specific circumstances, are no longer allowed to bring dependents with them.

Labour appears to believe this is a major issue but is embracing a different approach. Rather than depend on skilled migrant workers, the Labour Party is promising a skill overhaul that will empower their British citizens to take up jobs and therefore cut reliance on foreign workers. Labour also supports further restrictions placed on visas by the government and will lengthen the ban on hiring foreign workers below the minimum wage. These policies are, however, regarded by critics as a departure from the principles of Starmer, who was an immigration lawyer prior to entering politics.  Finally, perhaps in an attempt to shirk the toga of being soft on illegal migration, Labour pledged the creation of a border force to actively tackle illegal migration. Yvette Cooper, expected to be the next Home Secretary and the official responsible for enforcing this, did not rule out foreign deportation schemes similar to the much-criticised Rwanda scheme under Rishi Sunak.


Lastly, with a challenging economy in Europe, there remains the question of whether government aid investment will increase or decrease under a Starmer government. Lisa Nandy, who has been Labour’s spokesperson on international development, has stated that an emphasis will be placed on poor countries and not middle-income countries. If this holds, there might be reduced investment in the six West African countries identified as such by the World Bank’s 2021/2022 classification, - Benin Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.


There is an expected question about how this aid will be directed and what projects will receive much of a focus. Labour’s manifesto focused mostly on establishing ties with Europe and rebuilding relationships with former allies, and there was admittedly little on what the UK expects to do with Africa. However, with ambitions for a stronger global role and amidst geopolitical contests in the region, there will need to be a change of tack if the UK is to consolidate and build on its place in the region.


How should the region engage?

It goes without saying that, despite a considerable focus on foreign considerations, it is not West Africans who vote in a British Prime Minister. As a result, Mr. Starmer is likely to prioritise domestic considerations when determining the extent and focus of his government's foreign interventions. Labour’s first steps for change follow that reality, and it might take some time before West African citizens are made aware of the way the region will factor into their plans.


Regardless, West Africa can and should negotiate from a position of strength. To start with, the increasing proliferation of ‘Africa+1’ summits means that the UK will recognise that there is a different calculus for engaging with the continent. It also means that in negotiating for trade and aid, there needs to be a clear demand for what is needed and how best to support the region. This will help in ensuring a pragmatic approach to communicating positions in the early days. Finally, the region should be clear in dealing with the UK collectively, especially in terms of its foreign policy objectives. It will be a fellow member of the G20 and will, in Sierra Leone, have a fellow member of the UN Security Council. These avenues should provide a chance to negotiate a structured approach to ensuring African voices in international relations.


Recent Labour governments have been more active in ensuring a more activist role for the UK in international affairs. But this is not the same Labour of previous years and it is not yet clear if there is a clear plan in place for how to engage with a region that provides a considerable number of immigrants and also remains a major focal point of its presence on the continent. It is also dealing with the rise of a Reform Party that campaigned on fairly right-wing policy and will have to act swiftly to alleviate concerns that led to this. If West African leaders are able to work together and approach this effectively, then they can leverage this relationship for their own benefit, at least for the next five years.

Gbemisola Adebowale is a fact-checker at the Centre for Democracy and Development.



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