Fabian Society article – Defining Labour on defence

Fabian Society article – Defining Labour on defence

This article appeared in the Fabian Review, the journal of the Fabian Society, in April.

Peter Apps is a global affairs columnist for Reuters news agency. He is also a member of the British Army Reserve and the Labour party.

By the time the next Labour government takes power, the United Kingdom may well be facing the most complex defence, military and security challenges at any point in recent memory.

International tensions are rising and the future of some of the most basic international structures and assumptions – the EU, NATO, a United States heavily invested in the rest of the world – is being thrown into question. Meanwhile, changing technology and growing social strains across the world are generating new, deeply unpredictable dangers.

This kind of volatility isn’t new. When it was elected in 1997, few in the Blair government would have foreseen how much it would come to be defined by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Cameron government was confronted by the Arab spring and war in Libya within a year of taking office.

What is needed above all else, then, is not just flexibility but a worldview and degree of sophistication that allows the UK to deal with a wide range of possible scenarios.

In doing so, however, we should remain fundamentally true to Labour’s core values: defending not just territory and peoples but liberties and principles. Military service is a risky occupation, and those who take it on accept that. Still, their welfare – as well as that of the rest of the nation – must be a driving concern, whether in taking action overseas or making spending decisions at home.

A significant portion of the party has often viewed Britain’s military and its activities with a healthy degree of scepticism. Their views should not be discounted – not least because in recent history, they have more than once been proved right. Our forces and the population of the Middle East would have been better served if we had listened to those who marched against the Iraq war.

Priorities, though, are important.

Deterring a catastrophic attack has been at the heart of British defence policy since the days of the cold war. It will continue to be so: tensions are going to keep rising with Russia and perhaps also with China. North Korea might have a missile that can reach the United Kingdom within a decade or so. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that Trident – and the replacement Dreadnought class submarines that will carry it – protect us against all dangers. But they are the only line of protection we have ever found against that kind of existential threat.

Beyond that, planning becomes ever more complicated, not least because the time it takes to construct some of the more sophisticated military platforms is growing ever longer. The first plans for building Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers were announced in the strategic defence review of 1998. The ships themselves will only enter service at the end of this decade, finding themselves in a rather different world from anything anticipated in the late 20th century.

They will also, like just about every other piece of military equipment, have proved dramatically more expensive than initially anticipated.

In recent decades, British governments have tended to try to use military procurement to shore up a relatively small defence industrial base. There’s no doubt that that’s helped ensure that some companies remain big employers. But where possible, defence procurement decisions should also be aimed at growing broader, peacetime industries. That is already the case, at least up to a point, in aerospace. It hasn’t been in shipbuilding. Any future Labour government needs a much more comprehensive plan for this than any which has preceded it.

At its heart, however, defence is about people and it is those who serve who have ensured that Britain’s armed forces remain amongst the best in the world.

If you talk to members of those services today – particularly in the ranks – they are pretty underwhelmed at how successive governments, of whichever political persuasion, have treated them. There’s a feeling that they have been used – and in some cases, suffered serious casualties – without sufficient planning. But also a clear sentiment that there has been far too little attention paid to what military life is really like.

That’s somewhere where the Labour party could really be upping its game. With Nia Griffith as shadow defence secretary, there are signs it is beginning to do so. Labour is beginning to make much more noise on substandard accommodation, better career structures and lifestyles.

At the end of February, we relaunched Labour Friends of the Forces, which we hope will be at the heart of this campaigning.

In some respects, what the electorate wants from defence is not so different from what it expects from the welfare state and social welfare net. Individuals have a reasonably good idea of some of the situations they will be in and services they will require – education for their children, social care for their relatives as they age. But they also want protection against the unexpected – catastrophic ill health, redundancy, violent crime or natural disaster. With defence too, we need to be ready for the dangers we can’t predict as well as those we can.

That means having a plan, staying within budget and valuing those who actually provide the services the country needs. Getting that right in a complex century is going to be a challenge – but it’s one we have to meet.


Labour Supporting Veterans

Blog by Jon Wheale, Parliamentary Candidate for Burton.

LFF members, I want to talk to you today about Veterans.

Those many men and women who have served with dignity and courage in our Armed Forces.

Much is said of conflict, but when the talking is over it is our Armed Forces and their families who deliver.
It is they who take risks and it is they who risk their lives in the line of duty and our behalf.

But there is a hidden cost. An issue all too often shamefully neglected. An issue which affects many who have served.
That issue is the mental health and the wellbeing of our veterans.

A small but significant number of Veterans leave the Armed Forces with psychological wounds. These can lead to depression, phobias, anxiety, relationship problems and, in some cases, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

These veterans are not statistics but sons and daughters, mothers and fathers – men and women who live in our communities.
Men and women who I have had the honour to serve alongside in places like Afghanistan. Who have given their all and deserve to be treated with the very best mental health care should they need it.

We must protect them – honour their courage and dignity.

I fear the short-sighted policies of this Tory-led government. I fear the consequences of taking apart vital services and support at a time when veterans will need those services more and more.

Across Britain, services which provide vital support are being cut to the bone.
In my home town of Burton, the Margaret Stanhope centre, a facility which did outstanding work caring for people with mental health issues has closed.

I pledge to work to ensure that there is good mental health care provided locally for veterans and for all.
Charities such as Combat Stress in Burton do incredible work, but without the support they need they face an uphill struggle.

For those who have served and fought for us and our country it is little to expect that they receive the support that they need.

I am pleased that Jim, the shadow Defence team and Labour stands up for the Armed Forces, for their families, and for veterans.

As Ed Miliband has said mental health care is so important

a One Nation Labour priority.

One Nation fit for heroes.

Jim Murphy MP’s speech to Labour Party Annual Conference 2013

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.

Thank you.

Defence: The Lib Dems are part of the problem and would make matters worse- Jim Murphy MP

Article on Labourlist by Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP

Over the weekend I attended my first ever Lib Dem conference. Don’t worry, I went because I was invited by the Fabians to speak at a fringe meeting on challenging populism. Despite the obvious irony of a party that has delivered little other than shallow populism, I enjoyed the event.
Today the Lib Dem conference gathers to discuss defence. The strategy of simultaneously taking credit for and distancing themselves from the record of the Government of which they are a part is in full swing. The country will be as confused as they will be contemptuous. Seeking credit for solutions to problems which they helped create is a limited political strategy to say the least, and one that is brutally exposed on examination of Lib Dem defence proposals.

Labour has long argued about the dangers of the Government’s defence cuts delivered in the 2010 Defence Review, when Lid Dem Nick Harvey was No. 2 to the then Defence Secretary. This left us with aircraft carriers bereft of aircraft, a gap in maritime surveillance and allowances for frontline personnel slashed. In 2010 Nick Clegg said these decisions would “make Britain secure in the long run”. Now, in an extraordinary admission, his party proclaims in its conference policy statement on defence, ‘Defending the Future, UK Defence in the 21st Century’, that capability gaps “present a significant military risk, diminishing the UK in the view of both allies and potential adversaries.”

Many will have read about the growing unrest over the Government’s plan to make 20,000 soldiers redundant and the problems in trying to fill the personnel gap with reserves. Not only is this changing capability but the planned rise in number of reservists has been hit by a recruitment crisis and the redundancies carry on regardless, meaning the Army faces a potentially significant shortfall in personnel. Despite signing up to this policy in 2010, the Lib Dems now say “the government’s current plans have not been sufficiently well thought through…To cut the number of regulars before recruiting and training sufficient reservists is not the best approach”, echoing the criticism Labour has levelled for the past year.

A primary plank of the Government’s claim to credibility on defence is having brought budgetary stability to the MoD. Labour has supported elements of this, for example ten-year planning cycles, but highlighted real worries, for example that equipment spending may come at the expense of greater cuts to the Army and the damning assessment of the National Audit Office that, despite claims otherwise, the defence budget is not in balance. Making matters worse, the Lib Dems have now highlighted a “£12.5bn gap in the equipment procurement budget between around 2018 and 2032” and stated that Government spending plans still do “not address the anticipated MoD spending bulge around 2020”.

Going even further, the Lib Dems highlight their concern over the very same welfare issues that Labour have been fighting on, for example support for veterans, and say this has “compounded by anxiety about cuts in the numbers of service personnel, including redundancies very shortly before due retirement dates.”

In summary, the Coalition Government’s defence policy – according to one half of the Coalition – is characterised by capability gaps, risk over Army numbers, a multi-billion blackhole in defence equipment spending and anxiety amongst service personnel.

To address this, the Lib Dems propose not radical reform but limp retreat: “As a middle-ranking power, the UK cannot aspire to full-spectrum capabilities that would permit unilateral action around the globe”. Of course war weariness, unavoidable financial constraint and security threats growing in number and complexity place unprecedented burdens on the UK defence budget and strategy, but ambition, foresight and creativity are required rather than a limiting of our global role.

Policy propositions speak volumes, so let’s look at the Lib Dem’s on a central issue to UK defence – the nuclear deterrent. They propose to “end Continuous At-Sea nuclear patrols” with a “declaratory policy of going to sea only with unarmed missiles”. Not only, therefore, do the Lib Dems want our nuclear submarines to be part time, but when they are at sea they want to tell the world that they will be impotent, practically eradicating any deterrent effect for what in truth would be a minimimal saving. Labour’s view is that our deterrence policy must keep us on the path of multilateral disarmament, but the Lib Dems’ policy is laughable. Only the Lib Dems could get in to government, commission a study in to alternatives to Trident and then choose an option that was not even looked at by the commission because it was not deemed serious enough.

The defence and protection of UK national citizens and interests at home and around the globe is the primary duty of government and any party which aspires to govern. The Lib Dems’ demolition of their own record on defence and the incredibility of their policy propositions shows they have a long way to go.

‘Reservist Policy Woefully Mishandled,’ Jim Murphy MP

Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, said:

“Labour has repeatedly warned of the reservist crisis at the heart of the Government’s defence plans. Soldiers are being sacked regardless of whether there are reservist replacements.

“It is unacceptable that a policy so central to UK defence capability has been so woefully mishandled by the Government. A rushed reserve plan which derived from a rush to sack soldiers without a strategy for reform has left the country at risk of a serious manpower shortage and wasted public funds.

“As the reservists recruitment crisis deepens it threatens our nation’s ability to meet national defence objectives.

“There must now be an urgent investigation in to this policy to correct the backlog, recruit required reservist numbers and ensure this can never happen again. The Defence Board must take control to review the reserve strategy and ensure planning assumptions will be met and not missed.

“The Public Accounts Committee must review the Capita contract to evaluate whether value for money has been compromised and ensure this debacle is not repeated. Urgent action is now essential.”

Speaking clock – thousands of pounds squandered on costly calls – Kevan Jones MP

Kevan Jones MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Minister, responding to news that the MoD has spent £40,000 calling the speaking clock, said:

“Ministers claim to be taking action to tackle waste but thousands of taxpayer pounds are being squandered on costly calls.

“Personnel who have been made redundant or the public who have heard warnings from senior officers about the Government’s defence cuts will worry that waste is continuing.

“It is essential that a full ban is implemented. Ministers must give the country confidence that waste rather than capabilities is being cut.”

This government’s defence legacy is UK service personnel feeling under-powered and under-valued – Jim Murphy MP

Jim Murphy MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, responding to the Chief of defence staff’s warnings over military expectations, said:

“Rather than strategically remodelling our Forces for a post-Aghanistan, post-crash, rapidly evolving security landscape, the Government have simply shed capacity. Army strength and numbers rely on a Reserves plan in complete crisis, which could severely limit our ability to respond to and shape world events.

“This government’s defence legacy is UK service personnel feeling under-powered and under-valued.

“The UK can continue to protect and promote our national interests with Armed Forces which are advanced and affordable. A smaller Force can be smarter, and Labour is committed to strengthening personnel’s skills and qualifications. Labour would partner more with international allies to maximise capabilities, whether on operations or procurement. We would prioritise investment in new technologies to counter complex modern threats. To seek to avoid large scale overseas interventions we would train under-developed nations’ Forces, co-ordinate defence and development plans and support regional multilateral military groupings.”


Editor’s notes:

1. ‘Chief of defence staff warns over military expectations’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23790776