A shadow with substance: Gerald Kaufman offers some words of advice and encouragement to John Cunningham, his successor as Labour's foreign affairs spokesman

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The Independent Online
Dear Jack,

Seeing you on television the other night discussing the seemingly intractable issue of Bosnia, I wondered whether you might be asking yourself if being shadow Foreign Secretary was worth it; so many problems and no power. Opposition is certainly deeply frustrating. Yet I think you will find this post less frustrating than the other shadow portfolios you have held.

When shadowing other departments, the most you could hope for was winning some small concession or other during the passage of a Bill. As shadow Foreign Secretary you will discover that, without exaggerating the very limited scope available to an opposition spokesman, it is possible sometimes to influence not only the foreign policy of the UK government but the policies of overseas governments as well.

For me the Gulf crisis was the clearest example. On behalf of the Labour Party I said from the outset that the liberation of Kuwait must be achieved under the authority of United Nations Security Council resolutions. I argued that the broad coalition, including Arab and other Muslim countries, could not hold unless there was clear and specific international authority for action.

The Tory government was not so certain that resolutions were necessary and cited legal advice that reliance on the UN Charter would suffice. Yet at the same time ministers were anxious that there should be no party divide in parliament. I was told on very high authority that, in the continuing efforts to maintain five- power consensus in the Security Council, the attitude of the Labour Party was regarded as important. The Government took close account of the Labour Party's attitude to Commons motions and amendments on the Gulf crisis, and Labour therefore had a real effect on the course of action.

There were further worthwhile repercussions. Because we left no one in any doubt of our determination that Kuwait must be liberated, Labour won the trust of the Kuwaiti government. After the liberation I was disturbed at death sentences imposed by the Kuwaiti authorities and wrote to the embassy in London asking for those sentences not to be carried out. They were withdrawn, and the Kuwaiti government acknowledged that its regard for the Labour Party had played a part in that decision.

You will find that other governments, some of them surprising, show their concern to influence Labour policy. After the release of Nelson Mandela, and other measures taken to moderate apartheid, Labour established a dialogue with the South African government, after many years of refusing any contact. When Neil Kinnock and I met President F W de Klerk, he made it clear that he viewed Labour's relationship with the African National Congress as an important factor. Labour had, of course, maintained that relationship over a long period, during which Margaret Thatcher was denouncing the ANC as terrorists.

Do not be surprised, Jack, at the extent to which other governments will cultivate you. In north Africa, the Moroccan government will take great trouble to seek to justify to the Labour Party its presence in western Sahara. I went there to see the effects of the Moroccan regime. The Polisario Front then invited me to visit its refugee camps, deep in the Algerian Sahara, and Labour's support for a plebiscite - more essential than ever in view of current developments - was strengthened as a result of those contacts.

Again, I am sure you are aware that both the Indian and Pakistani governments, together with Kashmiri organisations, are anxious to put their cases on the Kashmiri issue to the Labour Party. Not only was I invited by Pakistan to what the Indians call POK (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir); the Indians invited me - the only senior outside politician to have gone there for a very long time - to what the Pakistanis call IHK (Indian-Held Kashmir), where I spent several days meeting both supporters and vehemently outspoken opponents of Indian policy.

A key issue for our party is Cyprus. The president of Cyprus was always ready to see me, and I am sure will be keen to meet you. Rauf Denktash, self-proclaimed leader of the Turkish Cypriots, also met me to put his case. Cypriots in Britain stated their case to me, and greatly welcomed Labour's support for a reunified federal Cyprus.

I bet you have already been contacted from Hong Kong. The very active democratic groups there, and the Chinese government, were always keen to meet me as the Labour Party representative. When Labour ceased to have relations with the Chinese embassy in London, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, it was from the Chinese that the first approaches came for a resumption of dialogue.

As with Neil Kinnock and myself, you and John Smith will have access to all the leading world figures, though of course not on the same regular basis as is available to ministers. The presidents of the United States and the then Soviet Union met Neil and me, as did the governments of the EC countries. So, too, did President Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, and many others. From Hans- Dietrich Genscher, then German foreign minister, I gained a clear understanding of the German opposition to short-range nuclear weapons and their modernisation, and was able both to structure a relevant Labour defence policy and to anticipate the evolution of Nato policy more clearly than could the Tories.

As shadow Foreign Secretary you will have greater access to certain leading figures than does the Foreign Secretary himself. I could meet Mr Denktash when Douglas Hurd could not. I met Yasser Arafat several times, when the UK Foreign Secretary never met him at all. I went twice to Syria when the British government had no diplomatic relations with that country (of course informing the Foreign Secretary of my visits and briefing him in full on my return) and was able to bring back information about the British hostages then held in Lebanon, and the Syrian attitude towards negotiations with Israel.

You will find that all these contacts are not just courtesies. They can be both informative and useful. Moreover, sometimes links with fellow Labour parties, through the Socialist International and bilaterally, can give our party greater influence than the government itself has. My ability to talk both to the Israeli Labour Party and the Palestine Liberation Organisation meant I was able, chairing a drafting committee of the Socialist International, to secure a consensus resolution on the Middle East which marked significant changes in the approaches of Israelis and Palestinians. These shifts may, in a small way, have helped closer understanding between them.

Of course I am not trying to mislead you into believing that your own and our party's influence will be appreciable on more than a handful of occasions; it will be negligible, if even as much as that, far more often. What you will experience to your satisfaction is that while opposition is a terrible waste for politicians wanting to achieve things, it is less of a waste in foreign affairs. I hope this assurance provides an incentive for you to go on your travels which, in any case, will give you, as they did me, an opportunity of widening your knowledge as well as your horizons.

Bon voyage, Gerald

(Photograph omitted)