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Labour needs to decide what British defence policy is for

Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker should outline a vision for modern left multilateralism.

Who’d be a Labour Secretary of State for Defence? Every decision you take has nightmarish unintended consequences and the defence industry and top brass lament they can’t capture you at exactly the same time that Labour’s grassroots and leftish commentators proclaim loudly that they already have. Pity, then, poor Vernon Coaker, taking to his feet today to pitch for one of the most difficult jobs in politics.

Coaker’s speech, at the Royal United Services Institute, is his chance to lay out how Labour would approach defence and security if a doveish Ed Miliband walks into Downing Street next May. In it he will need to answer how Britain’s military can be a progressive force in a world where terrorism, proliferation, authoritarian aggression, austerity and multilateral gridlock are combining to create a deep pessimism about what the west can still achieve. There is already a split emerging in Labour between pessimists and Pollyannas and Russia’s annexation of Crimea has given a fillip to the former, justifying a world view that sees not just the projection of Western values but the raw demonstration of western power as the primary strategic imperative of foreign policy.

Coaker is certainly closer to the first perspective and his speech today is likely to cover Labour’s future approach to the nuclear deterrent and NATO, while emphasising the importance of ensuring the next Strategic and Defence Review begins by asking what Britain needs, not just what the Treasury might pay for. But what will give his speech a truly Labour flavour is how effectively he addresses the question of what British defence policy is really for.

A progressive answer cannot begin and end with "the defence of British territory and interests", but nor can it slide, as some would like, into making defence a subset of development policy, as if the only legitimate role of the British army is to be a kind of a uniformed NGO with guns. Instead, Coaker needs to ask what modern left multilateralism looks like when the Security Council is paralysed in the face of barbarism, and what an agenda for reform and accountability might look like for forces which will, quite rightly, expect him to secure all the necessary resources they need to do their jobs.

The volatility of geopolitics and the endless stream of bad news from the world’s conflict hotspots gives Coaker’s speech today a special urgency. It will be followed by more big thinking from Jim Murphy next month and, no doubt, substantial foreign policy expositions from Labour’s leader and shadow foreign secretary in the months to come. If all four can align behind the same vision of Britain’s progressive use of power, another of Labour’s building blocks for government will be set firmly in place. 

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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