Jim Murphy MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, speaking to Labour Party Annual Conference 2013 in Brighton, said:
I want to start by paying tribute to the men and women involved in this the twelfth and penultimate year of a bloody campaign. We should never let Afghanistan become a forgotten war because too many have been lost and too much is at stake.
As well as remembering the 6,000 who serve this morning in the heat of the dust and in daily danger we should also recall why they are there. In response to September 11th under the auspices of the UN we sought to turn a failing country away from being an incubator and exporter of terrorism.
In a conflict that has no purely military solution progress is being made because of the bravery of our astonishing Forces and our country should pay tribute and never forget their sacrifice and service.
They serve with courage, spurred by their patriotism, but separated from their families who are filled with pride about their loved ones but stalked by the fear of the danger their loved ones face. It is for the sake of those who serve and their families that Labour is determined to be the Party of the Armed Forces.
But that is a big challenge: on this issue more than any other you can’t just declare your commitment, you’ve got to demonstrate it as a truth.
Conference, that’s why while we are out of office I emphasise we are not wholly out of power.
We should use our influence to demonstrate not just declare. We should be so proud about the work we have done together so far.
We will enshrine the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant in the NHS constitution to support those with life-changing physical wounds or the invisible injury of mental health.
A plan for smarter Armed Forces, increasing in-service training for the frontline to give skills which transfer to the world of work.
Our Veterans Interview Programme helps service-leavers find jobs.
Our Veterans Champions help them resettle in to their communities.
Our plan to name streets after the fallen provides a perpetual memory to those who haven’t returned.
And today still too many of our Forces continue to face discrimination, whether in the workplace or when they go about their daily lives. It’s sad that those who fight for our country might need the protection of our laws, but some do.
That is why I want to confirm to you that next month in Parliament we will table amendments to the Defence Reform Bill so that for the first time ever it would be a specific criminal offence to attack members of our Armed Forces, ensuring they are treated with the dignity that their bravery deserves.
I want the Forces to feel at ease in our country and at home in our Party. We are the only Party to have enshrined the principles of the Covenant in our rule book and we now offer a new military membership rate. Some said it wouldn’t work – but we should all be so proud that we now have more than 800 new military members who have joined our Party.
I want to talk a little about the other parties. Despite our differences, when the Government gets it right we should support them, as we did when they rightly but reluctantly enshrined the principles of the Covenant in law. But while they may have written the Covenant down, they still don’t fully understand what it means.
Just look at their legacy.
Forces’ housing has been neglected. Allowances have been cut and the frontline could be jeopardised as specialists are being scrapped.
Three wasted years and living standards are stagnant.
This is a government that during the crucial Syria vote two of their own Ministers locked themselves away in a soundproof room. It’s little wonder this government won’t listen. These are the people who gave us an aircraft carrier without aircraft.
Now it’s 20,000 soldiers sacked to be replaced by reserves, only for the private contract in charge of recruiting the reserves to fail and soldiers to be drafted in to rescue the contract, which was meant to replace the soldiers the country did not want to be sacked in the first place.
Conference. It is ludicrous.
And these Tories have the audacity to talk about hardworking people.
But how much more hardworking can you get than a young man dismantling explosives in the 50 degree Helmand heat? Or a young woman medic holding together the life of a bloodied comrade while she is coming under fire?
You can’t get more hardworking than that.
Then ask yourself how can it be right that the Tories deliver to 13,000 millionaires an average £100,000 tax cut when thanks to this Government every single Private in the Army is having their pay cut by £3,000?
Of course times are tough, but, Mr Cameron, something is fundamentally wrong when your out of touch government is willing to take from those who serve in Afghanistan to give a tax cut for your millionaire friends. You should not freeze the pay of the bravest to pay for a tax cut for the richest.
And what about the Lib Dems? I like many of them but they spent their Conference sheltered from the Glasgow rain and protected from their Tory pals, demanding respect for parading their second-rate consciences. They deserve no credit just for spending three days mildly rebuking the Tories when for three years they have meekly supported so much of what they do.
And the SNP? Their defence policy is based more on faith than fact.
You can’t plan to spend just seven pence in every £1 of the UK defence budget and claim that Scotland will be better defended. The SNP’s absurd policy would cut Scotland’s defence even deeper than the Tories have done.
They haven’t done even their basic thinking as independence is a powerful idea of the 19th century ill-suited to the 21st. There is no problem facing the world today to which the solution is Scottish independence.
So there’s a different way of doing things. Labour would build on the Covenant and consult with charities and legal experts about introducing a Forces and Veterans Bill of Rights setting out the legal guarantees of what a government would provide.
Independent justice. In-service education. Personalised support from Local Authorities. Workplace rights for Army Reserve volunteers. Personalised budgets for veterans with the severest injury.
No gimmicks just guarantees.
Conference, we should be clear. Being the Party of the Armed Forces isn’t a contest between Tory or Labour or about who is keenest or quickest to deploy force. Rather, it’s how we train, educate and equip our personnel and how we care for their families. We do so in the hope that we don’t have to place our personnel in harm’s way, but in the knowledge that sometimes that gravest decision of last resort is unavoidable.
Despite wariness and weariness, the military component to our security is something our country and our party have always understood, whether in our eulogising the Socialists who defied their government to volunteer in the Spanish civil war, or supporting a controversial government here at home who stood up to an Argentinean junta, or in the ‘90s acting to stop a European slaughter in the Balkans.
But to remain a party prepared to intervene we must learn lessons and do so in new ways, with prevention before intervention. Large scale long-term interventions like Afghanistan should be seen as a sign of international failure, because we should have greater focus on turning weak states in to secure nations before they fail.
Increasingly our strength will be determined by the power of our partnerships and so Labour’s security policy will be based on a renewed multilateralism, with regional coalitions and underpinned by stability in defence financing. Defence, diplomacy and development will be mutually reinforcing, each strengthened by a total rejection of isolationism and embrace of internationalism.
But military intervention is always the final option for our Party. That’s why on Syria we rightly required stringent tests over evidence, regional impact and a UN process before voting on military action.
Conference, my final and most important message to you and all those considering their vote in 2015 is that Labour has never turned our back on our international responsibilities and while some may consider us a small island we remain a big country with a global reach – and under Ed Miliband’s leadership we will retain that tradition of knowing that our duty to stand for what we believe in travels well beyond our borders.