Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Responsibility and reform in defence

When it comes to defence policy populism can be seductive but it is relentlessly superficial. Popularity can be enduring, but it must be based upon credibility. That is a lesson the Government ignores. In Opposition the Tories promised more helicopters for Afghanistan than the then Labour government but in power delivered just half the number we had planned for. Now, past populism has been replaced by a government with neither credibility nor popularity. Their policy is a series of tactical decisions the aggregate of which they had hoped would amount to a strategy.

National security is dependent on economic stability, and vice versa. This is what the Government has failed to understand. A singular economic strategy based on rapidly reducing public spending combined with a rushed, short-sighted defence review has left Britain with defence capability gaps, a timid defence industrial strategy and new limitations on the role our Armed Forces can play in the world. What is needed in defence today is careful deficit reduction plus far reaching reform.

We have been clear that during our time in government some of the problems of procurement which plagued successive administrations were not sufficiently tackled. This, combined with the global economic downturn and the Government’s failure to stimulate domestic private sector growth, means defence spending must increase at a lower rate than it did during our time in government and our ambitions must be met through new solutions.

We do not accept the Government’s claim that there was a £38bn blackhole left at the MoD in 2010. This figure has never been substantiated. We do accept, however, that changed economic circumstances and resultant necessary budgetary restraint mean that there is a gap between projected expenditure and what is now affordable. If we were in government Labour would be making cuts to defence in this Parliament, and we are factoring this in to our ongoing policy reviews.

To demonstrate our intent in this area we have identified £5bn worth of savings Labour would make within the MoD budget if in government.  We prioritise non-frontline savings, but we are clear that some savings will need to come from the equipment programme and manpower, none of which would impact on the effort in Afghanistan.  The package includes cuts that now they have been taken cannot be reversed, for example a reduction in heavy artillery designed for another era and the cancellation of Nimrod. The Government cut the Nimrod planes up on live TV and now that have been crushed like scrap metal they can’t be rebuilt. But the failing in government policy is that they haven’t put in place a long term strategy for surveillance capability.

Labour has also identified areas such as civil servant numbers, bonuses and allowances for senior officers and MoD restructuring where further savings can be found.  We are committed to being forensically credible on defence expenditure. The £5bn identified will help to pay down the defence deficit, as well as potentially pay for future policies on Forces’ welfare which will come from our ongoing review into the Future of the Military Covenant.

For us defence deficit reduction is not an end in itself as it is for the Government. Proof of prudency must be coupled with a programme of reform.  That is why Labour has, for example, led the debate on procurement reform. Our independent review proposed defining the capabilities which should be UK-based over the long-term, which would allow for investment to be targeted to support UK defence imperatives as well as skills and jobs.  The report proposed cultural change, with tougher targets on time and cost for industry and greater willingness to make cancellations if there are over-runs.  Labour has also proposed deeper collaboration with international partners, in particular with European nations over procurement to develop economies of scale.  The UK-France Treaty is a model which we have said can lay the foundations for a landscape of European co-operation based on distinct, sometimes regional co-operations.  We have argued for greater burden sharing and greater deployability of assets within NATO, and have made the case for exploring how reductions in defence spend and changes to force and equipment structures in European NATO nations can be better co-ordinated.  Early this year we will launch our policy review on the emerging threats facing the UK and how our national security strategy should respond.

Compare this to the Government’s as yet non-existent defence industrial strategy white paper and their defence review which led to capabilities being recalled for the conflict in Libya.  This year the Government will be judged on whether they can begin to chart a new course, minimising the damage caused by rushed decisions and developing a programme to protect jobs, skills and modernise the equipment programme.

For Labour in defence this will be a year in which responsibility will go hand in hand with reform, because we know it is self-defeating to have one without the other.  Our plans are not yet a programme for government, but they are proof that we are an Opposition intent on governing and engaged with the issues we would be if we were in power.


Jim Murphy MP is shadow secretary of state for defence


Photo: Jerry Gunner

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Jim Murphy MP

is shadow secretary of state for defence


  • Instead of giving the nod to cuts in conventional forces, Labour would do better to say loudly and clearly that it would cancel replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system. Trident is immensely expensive, bears no relation to current security threats, and seen as unnnecessary and unaffordable by most of the public according to opinion polls.

    A coherent defence policy from Labour would be based around scrapping Trident and using the money saved to fill the forces gaps needed by NATO. Unfortunately, Labour seem to be stuck in a twenty year old political timewarp when it comes to nuclear weapons, and haven’t yet grasped that there are no votes in spending vast sums of money on replacing Trident when public services such as health, education, and care are being slashed.

  • So for Jim Murphy both the crazed attempt (after at least 4 failures) to re/create the British Empire in Afghanistan, and the dogma that Trident deters any potential aggressor at all, are both sacrosanct. what to say? PuhLeeze! This is a policy? I should call it an emotional spasm……

  • Comments here have concerned Britain’s deterrent capability while the post was trying to look at broader issues. The ConDem’s treatment of the military has been disgraceful, starting with sending redundancy emails to troops either in the field or just back. Given that many in the military come from ostensibly Labour-supporting backgrounds, we really should give them a better deal. It is the sons and daughters of working people who have been fighting – and dying – for us in Iraq, Afghanistan and we should not forget that. During office, the military were kept very busy – perhaps too busy – but they are our people first and foremost.

    Other stupidities included knee-jerk cuts to equipment. Nimrod was mentioned although that airframe was really out of date and better replaced with smaller aircraft, drone or lighter-than-air vehicles. Scrapping the Harrier fleet and the Ark Royal was premature even if we don’t have sufficient carriers – Harriers could in principle operate from anything. I don’t know how much extra the Libya campaign cost as a result of having to fly 90 minutes each way from Italy but it must have meant that a lot less was done with rather more resources that would have been the case. Cameron was lucky there – but his recent escapade in Nigeria was not so fortunate, even though it is possible that the hostages would have been killed anyway.

    The world is changing but withdrawing to island-defence is not the solution where the potential adversaries could come – rapidly – from anywhere on the globe. It is not that we can or should act as a world policeman but we do have ‘interests’ far and wide that need defending from time to time. Sweden and Germany may get away with it but we can’t.

    The trouble is that, like much in this government, it is run by Osborne who finds counting rather difficult and Cameron doesn’t seem to be able to add at all. And when Fox claimed to have found a £38 billion ‘black hole’ it is clear that he was doing some pretty stupid sums – not helped by Liam Byrne’s joke but still magnified out of all proportion. Thanks to Osborne, we will end up with little or no defence. Shame on them.

    But if we want to retain a nuclear deterrent – and given the uncertainty around Iran and North Korea let alone the possibility of terrorists getting hold of them, this is by no means a simple issue – it unlikely that we would use it for global conflict without the Americans at least. Inn fact we probably couldn’t so would just be an adjunct to the Pentagon which is not always a good idea. Therefore the ballistic missile benefits of Trident are questionable.

    But submarines are the best platform for a weapon so it seems sensible not to replace Trident but to develop warheads for supersonic cruise missiles that could be fired from Astute-class vessels. Extend the current production line for these which will mean substantial economies of scale and give the Navy more boats. Astute is a very powerful weapon system, rather smaller than the Trident boats but more up-to-date and capable of a lot more. And it would keep the defence industries going which may not be to every Labour supporter’s cup of tea but it is one of the few remain large scale high tech industries we have left.

Sign up to our daily roundup email