This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
Change is all around us. Politics at home is in a state of flux, economics across the world will take time to emerge from post-crash uncertainty, while in defence and security the landscape is being transformed. New and emerging threats, regional power shifts and fiscal realities are all colliding to make this what President Obama has called “a moment of transition”. In this context, each political party needs to find new solutions to modernise our armed forces, care for their families and retain global reach and influence.
As the opposition, Labour will always work constructively with the government where possible and hold it to account where necessary, as we are over Afghanistan and as we did over Libya. Consensus when the government does the right thing, however, should not mask real differences. Whether on industrial strategy, forces’ welfare or Britain’s role in the world, the issue of defence demonstrates dramatic divides between Labour and the government.
Its rushed defence review has well-documented flaws, and decisions were made that had serious capability gaps. The government grossly mismanaged Britain’s aircraft carrier programme, one of the most strategically important elements of our national defence. Assumptions underpinning the review were rapidly rendered obsolete by world events, and Britain had to recall equipment bound for the scrapheap during the Libya conflict. Ends were not supported by means.
The country wants an alternative on defence. Labour’s alternative is based on two principles: realism and reform. The boldness inherent in our ideas for the future is balanced by candour about the constraints of the context in which we operate.
As a result of the global financial crash, successive administrations’ weaknesses over procurement and this government’s failure to stimulate domestic growth, defence spending will have to rise over the long-term at a lower rate than previously forecast. We do not accept the government’s £38bn claim, which ministers have refused to substantiate, but budgetary constraint is unavoidable.
That’s why we have initially identified billions of savings in defence through efficiencies and reducing areas of the equipment programme. There are additional areas where Labour would be making savings, and these include manpower across the three services, in particular to tackle ‘top-heavy’ structures that the government is doing little to address. We would make careful cuts to civil servant numbers, retaining capacity to deliver on our priorities, unlike current proposals. In addition to those we have announced, we would also make further changes to the equipment programme, including reducing the current fleet of Tornado jets.
The government’s self-made, double-dip recession means every party will face the challenge of deficit reduction well beyond the next election. While we are upfront about this, the difference between Labour and the government is that, for us, deficit reduction is not the end in itself. In defence, national security is the bottom line. We have begun to outline a programme of far-reaching reform to show how Britain can confront global threats with leaner, more advanced, modern armed forces.
Labour has led the debate on procurement reform and how to support a UK-based defence industry that is efficient and effective, supporting the frontline with advanced equipment when and where it’s needed. We want to give industry greater certainty about which capabilities will be UK-based, as well as instil a ‘culture of consequences’, with tougher targets on time and cost for the manufacturing sector. If the government was serious about supporting defence as well as reforming our economy, it would support our calls for a Strategic Defence Industrial Strategy.
There is cross-party consensus about the need to support our forces and their families, but less so on the means to do so. Labour has a strong record on forces’ welfare. We supported the Royal British Legion’s campaign to enshrine the military covenant in law, and have proposed greater resources to tackle veterans’ long-term mental health issues. We have called for an examination of US-style employment rights for carers of those injured in the line of duty, and, if elected, would aim to rebalance the system of allowances in favour of the low-paid and those on the frontline. Britain’s ability to project power ultimately relies on the courage of individuals, and they must be properly cared for and rewarded.
Labour’s commitment to defence has shaped our reforms. We are the first party to offer a cut-price membership fee for service people and veterans. We’ve also created Labour Friends of the Forces, a campaigning group led by those with defence experience and sympathetic to Labour values, which will demonstrate how Labour can serve those who have served our country.
We’re determined not to repeat the current mistakes and propose reforms in the absence of a clear vision of Britain’s role in the world. Labour’s shadow defence review will do the long-term thinking that this government omitted. The review will examine the threats we face, interests we must protect, and the military we need. We will not make unfunded commitments we cannot deliver, as the Conservatives did in calling for a bigger army when they were in opposition.
Maximising security and influence today demands coalition-building, and our review will look at how we can deepen partnerships with European nations and the US. The UK-France Treaty is a model that can lay the foundations for multiple European partnerships. We have argued for greater burden-sharing and deployment of assets within Nato, and have made the case for exploring how a ‘coalition of cuts’ between European Nato nations can co-ordinate reductions in defence spending, and resultant changes to forces’ structures. The practice of allies fighting conflicts together but preparing for them individually must end.
We also know that the best defence policy is often a world-class development policy, since careful prevention can be so much more effective that the painful cure of military action. UK prosperity, security and liberty cannot be separated from events overseas, and our review will examine how we can retain the ability and intent to intervene, both by capacity-building and militarily. The IPPR has identified an ‘Arc of Instability’ of 27 states that are at high risk of conflict, fragility or failure. We must remain vigilant against these threats, but also against of a state of ambivalence where understandable public wariness of intervention precludes the use of force.
Labour’s commitment to defence is non-negotiable: national security is the first duty of any government and any party aspiring to govern. We will always be a party of defence. The post-war Attlee government was instrumental in the creation of the Nato Alliance. Jim Callaghan was in the Royal Navy before he was prime minister, and Denis Healey served in the army before he served as chancellor. Defence and the honour of service have been part of our history, which is why we’ve overcome the outdated orthodoxy that the Tories are the natural party of defence.
Politics is at its best when it is the clash of big ideas. This is increasingly the case with defence. The choices the government is making are degrading our capabilities, limiting our influence and undermining our industry. By contrast, Labour wants to support the frontline and balance the bottom line, extend the compassion we show to forces’ personnel and their families, and build the alliances that enhance the power we exert. In an era of unprecedented change, these will be the constants against which all parties should be judged.
Jim Murphy is the shadow defence secretary and the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire