The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, broke with the European big power consensus by saying it was wrong to recognise Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, saying she did not wish to strike a pose to help Venezuela, but do something realistic and practical to secure fresh elections.
She was answering questions at the end of a major speech in which she promised a hallmark of a Labour-run foreign office would be a consistent preparedness to criticise human rights abuses by Britain’s powerful allies including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.
She also used the speech to criticise the leadership of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, saying indirectly that he called himself socialist but had betrayed every socialist value.
But she sided with a minority of EU countries, notably the Italian government, in rejecting Guaido’s call to be recognised as the interim president of Venezuela. Britain, France, Spain and Germany have all recognised Guaido.
The shadow foreign secretary said: “I do not think you can make demands without knowing what you are going to do next. It’s about not striking a pose, but doing things that are realistic and practical.”
She added: “Regional voices are very important and I think we should be led by them more than we are, rather than unilaterally, or almost unilaterally, deciding this must happen by this time. I think there should be dialogue facilitated by regional powers. I think it is a question of approaching this with a little more humility.”
She said: “We need to give them time, and that offer has been made internally and externally. We need to ensure that happens – that is the best way to proceed, rather to suddenly say ‘that’s it, we had enough. We recognise X. We do not recognise Y any more.’ It’s not the way to treat another country, even a country in as desperate a situation as Venezuela.”
During an interview in Venezuela’s legislative palace in Caracas on Tuesday, Juan Andrés Mejía, a close Guaidó ally from the Voluntad Popular party, said he was troubled there were those in Britain who “still don’t understand the struggle here in Venezuela, especially some people in the Labour party [including] Jeremy Corbyn and others”.
Mejía said: “This is not an ideological struggle in Venezuela. This is not left against right … In the opposition you have parties from across the political spectrum.
“Our basic demand here is elections. We are not trying to set up a government that will stay there forever and control all of the branches of power.”
“We are only trying to have freedom for elections – and that is not what happened here last year. I would ask Corbyn what would happen if his party and himself were banned from running, if millions of voters were forbidden from voting because they were living abroad … Would he or anyone else in the UK accept those rules? Probably not.”
Thornberry said she favoured targeted international sanctions in principle, but did not say if she specifically supported them in the case of Venezuela.
The bulk of her speech suggested a Labour foreign office will retilt the policy balance towards values, rather than interests, promising a consistent support for human rights, while at the same time engaging frankly with regimes with which Labour disagrees.
She said recent years “had seen a perceptible shift to make the promotion of trade, business links and the financial bottom line not just the top priority of Foreign Office staff based here and overseas, but one allowed to override all others, most notably the protection of human rights”.
She accused Theresa May of “an instinctive panicked reaction to Brexit, which says this is not the time to lose friends elsewhere, no matter who those friends are or whether they behave as friends should”.
She added: “How else do we explain the craven indulgence of the human rights abuses committed by President Sisi in Egypt or President Erdoğan in Turkey, and the frankly shameful blind eye being turned to the crimes of Crown Prince Bin Salman?
“For too long, and this was as true of the past Labour government as it is true of this Conservative one, there has been a grave tendency to patronise and punish those nations with whom our trade links and strategic alliances are less important – because their human rights abuses are safe to criticise and their breaches of international law are easy to support UN resolutions against – while the stronger countries have had their own abuses and crimes ignored and indulged.”
The whole of the foreign office has lost its sense of purpose, and become afflicted by short-term thinking, muddied goals, shrunken budgets and “a dangerous indulgence of authoritarian regimes”.
At the same time she insisted Labour in office cannot afford to live in a parallel universe, saying “we must deal with the world as it is now, not as we wish it could be, and be ready to do whatever we can, and deal with whoever it takes, to achieve our goals”.
Offering what she agreed might be seen as Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy laced with realism, she conceded critics will say if her stance “means dealing with the likes of Iran or Russia on one side, or Saudi Arabia or Turkey on the other – that we will, right from the outset, be compromising the values that we claim will guide Labour’s foreign policy.
She added: “I fundamentally disagree. If we are true to our values, and the objectives that flow from those values, we must accept that – in the world as it is now – that will inevitably mean negotiating and working with people with whom we don’t agree.”
In specific proposals she said she supported the Blair government intervention in Kosovo without explicit UN backing, defended limited arms sales to Israel and promised an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen. She promised a root and branch review of the British arms exports control systems, and dogged pursuit of a two-state solution in Israel.
She added she was not interested in merging the department of international development back in to the foreign office.
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