RAF members undergo Merlin Helicopter training in California. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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