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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.