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3 April 2024updated 04 Apr 2024 12:39pm

John Healey: “Britain has a lot to learn from Ukraine’s resilience”

Labour’s shadow defence minister on how to bolster national security, dealing with Trump, and selling arms to Israel.

By Anoosh Chakelian

During the last general election campaign, when Labour campaigners were out knocking on doors, Help for Heroes or Royal British Legion stickers in windows were sure signs they wouldn’t get a hearing. By polling day in December 2019, under the leadership of long-time Nato sceptic Jeremy Corbyn, the party had developed a reputation for being soft on defence.

Five years later, defence is one of the last remaining policy areas on which the British public trusts the Conservatives more than Labour: by 21 per cent to 18 per cent, according to YouGov. The man tasked with closing that gap is John Healey, a veteran of the soft left who was made shadow defence secretary in 2020.

You can see why Healey was picked. In the unthreatening uniform of a long-serving politico, a red paisley tie over a pale pink shirt, the 64-year-old Yorkshireman has a reassuring presence. He has been an MP for 27 years and served as a minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as well on Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench teams. His South Yorkshire constituency of Wentworth and Dearne, located between the towns of Rotherham and Barnsley, has a Red Wall-ish quality: his consistent above-13,000 majorities dropped to just 2,165 during the 2019 routing of Labour in northern England.

Since Healey took the defence brief, Britain has faced the Kabul evacuation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western withdrawal from Mali, the Hamas-Israel conflict and devastation of Gaza, and rising threats from China. Yet he is above all else a constituency MP, determined to remain locally engaged. “There were over 2,000 homeless veterans [in England] last year, but it’s when on a Saturday morning I’m going to the Co-op in Rotherham, and the lad sitting outside with his hat is ex-forces, that brings it home to you,” he said when we met in his oak-panelled rooms, a gloomy office of thick green carpet originally occupied by the Metropolitan Police commissioner, in the wing reserved for Labour in parliament. Copies of Soldier magazine were scattered above the latest issue of the New Statesman. A team of young men worked at standing desks overlooking the Thames. “A good MP is a better minister, so even with this shadow defence job, constituency connections are really important to me.”

This folksy framing of national security as a doorstep domestic concern is central to Healey’s approach. He wants to overhaul the Ministry of Defence’s notoriously weak procurement practices – branded “well and truly broken” last year by a cross-party committee of MPs – by buying and building more in Britain. “If we want to make Britain better-defended, we have to do as much on the inside as we do on the outside.”

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As a former housing minister, he also worries about how austerity has impacted Britain’s troops, who are living in poor, government-contracted accommodation, claiming benefits, using food banks and leaving the forces faster than they’re being recruited.

The British Army has shrunk to its smallest size since the Napoleonic era. Yet Healey has no budget to change this, and said he isn’t pushing the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to let him pledge 2.5 per cent of GDP for defence (the Conservatives’ missed spending target). Instead, he would “open the books when you get into government, and then match what may be available to spend with an assessment of the threats we face”.

The armed forces are so diminished that General Patrick Sanders, head of the British Army, has even mentioned the return of conscription. Would Labour consider creating a citizens’ army or reintroducing national service? “No, that’s a non-starter, and it distracts from the problems in the system we already have.” Yet Healey is concerned about the home front. “Ukraine has resisted Russia because of the strength of its civilian and military resistance… A country is only as strong as the resilience of its people and the strength of its industry, and that is just a blunt lesson from Ukraine we have to learn.”

By agreeing security pacts with Germany and the EU, Labour would shift strategy away from the Indo-Pacific. This would mean ending the “bombast of Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ and recognising our deepest obligations lie in Europe”, Healey said. He predicted that Nato would have to do “more heavy lifting” in Europe, because whomever wins the next US presidential election will be preoccupied with China.

How would a Donald Trump presidency affect Britain’s relations with the United States? David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, campaigned against Trump’s 2019 state visit to Britain and in 2017 called him a “racist KKK and Nazi sympathiser”. Healey paused. “There will be challenges, whoever wins… We’ve got to pick up some of the command-and-control leadership that we might naturally have assumed in the past would be there for the Americans to provide on their own.” Healey added that relations with the US will “require a good deal of work anyway for a new government, but a relationship with that depth needs to be renewed for every era, and if we had a Labour government it would be cardinal that the US remains our most important security ally”.

The Middle East conflict is intensifying internal Labour tensions; 135 MPs and peers are pushing the government to suspend arms sales to Israel, with Labour providing more signatories than any other party. Since 2008, the UK has licensed arms worth more than £574m to Israel. The government reviewed existing and pending licences in December, and decided to keep granting them. Would Labour stop doing so? Another pause. “We don’t know what’s been exported from the UK to Israel since 7 October, so we need that export data. Second, the government should publish the legal view on the question of breaching international humanitarian law… There are, rightly, quite tight rules on exports of arms, and if the rules require the suspension, then that’s what the government should do.”

Can Labour not judge whether a suspension is warranted? “If you’re dealing with national policy, particularly in a conflict like this, it’s really important to have that basis of a properly evidenced legal process… At the heart is data about the exports, legal judgment about the conduct of conflict and international humanitarian law: that’s the information we need to have a debate on that. But we’ve done it before in government.”

At 18 Healey worked on a merchant navy voyage to Durban, South Africa, before hitchhiking to Swaziland, where he helped build schools. At Cambridge University he learned to fly in the university air squadron, and in his early twenties bought a one-way ticket to the Canaries, from where he set sail across the Atlantic. But life in the armed forces wasn’t a prospect. “No, for me, it was a life that was too disciplined, too constrained. I enjoyed the challenge and discipline of being in the air squadron – I had about 47, 48 hours on the logbook and that included seven or eight hours of solo flights… But I never flew again.”

Healey has in the past been a member of the human rights groups Amnesty International and Liberty, though “not for 40 years”, he told me. Peace, despite the party moving on from the Corbyn era, is fundamental to Labour’s approach to defence. “We’ve got deep roots in defending the country, because it’s been working men and women who have fought and often died on the front line, and it was a Labour government after the war that established Nato and our independent nuclear deterrent – both unshakeable commitments for Keir Starmer,” he said.

“But we also have a deep pride in the Labour contribution to international law and human rights: the Geneva Conventions, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, were all signed by Labour prime ministers. The purpose of having strong armed forces isn’t because you want to fight; it’s because you want to deter the conflict.”

[See also: Gus O’Donnell: The insider’s guide to preparing for power]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown