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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.

A vision for modern left multilateralism.
RAF members undergo Merlin Helicopter training in California. Photograph: Getty Images.

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. 

Tags:Labour