Labour has the opportunity to bolster its defence credentials to win in 2022 and, more importantly, to better keep us safe, says Jack May
The image is seared into many of our minds – and a happy memory to return to when political events seem to make reality a little bleak: Liz Kendall, on an away day with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, standing defiantly atop a tank in full army camouflage with a grin on her face.
It is an entertaining photo, but the programme, which helps members of parliament to understand what life is really like in our armed forces, is a serious business. Nobody likes the idea of sending soldiers into battle – anybody who has been anywhere near the firing end of a gun knows how gruelling it must be – but shirking our defence responsibilities makes conflict more, not less, likely.
Those concerned by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the opposition have good grounds to be worried. His repeated insistence on unilateral nuclear disarmament is naive, and his lack of engagement with defence policy beyond Stop The War rallies is not a fully credible background for a future prime minister. Quite how you expect people to elect you to lead the forces when you have spent most of your career railing against them is somewhat beyond me, I will admit.
Mercifully, the ground does seem to be shifting a little – and Labour members and members of parliament serious about getting into government and serious about the security of the country must work to push this gradual transformation in approach towards defence forward.
After intense pressure from within the party, and the farcical incident of Clive Lewis’s 2015 party conference speech as shadow defence secretary, most of the battle on committing to Trident renewal has been won. Labour’s manifesto in 2017 promised ‘support for the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent’, and though Nia Griffith, the current shadow, is an abolitionist by background, she has backed the party’s policy of renewal and has said that ‘it is absolutely vital that if you have a deterrent, you are prepared to use it’ – which is more than her leader has managed. Importantly, the manifesto also proposed a full strategic defence review, and committed to Nato’s two per cent of gross domestic product defence spending target.
This is progress but Labour needs to go further.
Half-hearted whimpers on the issue of defence constitute so much of what makes people reluctant to support a Corbyn-led Labour party. They see him as weak, unpatriotic, more at home among the throngs of the like-minded at rallies and protests than round the tough table of top-level decision-making, and believe he lacks the resolve to defend Britain’s security as virulently as he defends its right to economic fairness.
More often than not, security is Tory home turf. As Labour is most commonly trusted to protect the National Health Service, the Conservatives are supposedly the party to be trusted on security – be it policing, intelligence, or ‘boots on the ground’. But as we saw just before the election, austerity has led to police cuts, and Theresa May’s infamously personal, bullish approach to the Police Federation has only soured that dynamic – enabling Corbyn’s team to take the initiative.
Labour should now take the same approach with the armed forces.
A report from the National Audit Office suggests that the ministry of defence could end up £20bn short on its equipment budget across the next decade. Though the figure may seem steep, it is thanks to 2010-era cuts coming home to roost, a dire need to keep our equipment at the forefront of technological advancements and mounting ambition in the face of mounting threats – not an imagined and expensive desire to warmonger.
If Labour can commit itself to £11bn to save predominantly middle-class graduates from incrementally repaying part of long-term loans on university education, it can stump up the cash to protect us from mounting existential security threats from Russia, China, North Korea, and elsewhere.
Though Gavin Williamson has now launched a review, it is unclear whether this will result in changes to the total funds available, or merely act – as Nia Griffith has said – as a kick-it-into-the-long-grass smokescreen. Add that to the fact that the new secretary of state cuts a rather limp figure, who would rather spend his time talking about extramarital excursions and his tarantula (we assume the two have never been concurrent) and briefing up his leadership chances than standing up for his department, and Labour has a golden opportunity.
The work of convincing voters that Labour’s leadership is serious both that Britain is worth defending and that it intends to defend it will be a lengthy process. Start the serious groundwork now and hesitant ballot box pencils that wavered away in 2017 may well put their Xs – and their trust – in Labour.
Jack May is a Progress columnist, writer and editor. He tweets at @JackO_May
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