In May 2022, the shadow defence secretary John Healey said there were two areas where “doubts about Labour run deep”. The first was the economy. Hence Rachel Reeves’s relentless commitment to propagating the perception that a Reevesian Treasury would not spend any more money than the Tories. Second: defence. For various well-trodden reasons Keir Starmer had to restore Labour’s reputation as a party for which national security was sacrosanct. Healey – whom you can’t help but think partly has the job because he looks like the opposite of a long-haired, peace-loving, CND-supporting hippie – compulsively commits to Nato and the nuclear deterrent in every interview. For his part, Starmer has unremittingly supported the government’s position on Ukraine and its recent bombardment of Houthi positions in Yemen.
In contrast to the clarity of Labour’s commitment to Nato and the nuclear deterrent, the rest of Labour’s defence policy is opaque. Sources argue this is because it doesn’t have the classified information necessary to make proper spending plans. As one told me: “It wouldn’t be credible for a Labour Party to sit in opposition and move pieces around some kind of giant Risk board. You need to match your capabilities with your allies, against what we can procure [and with the threats we face].”
Nonetheless, there are a few clues as to what Labour’s priorities will be. Labour wants to renew the contract between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and servicemen and women, improve the complaints process and upgrade dire MoD housing. The stunningly inefficient and wasteful procurement process needs to be reformed, not least to encourage more British manufacturing. That, sources say, is key to restoring the strained relationship between the Treasury and the MoD.
On defence strategy, David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, and Healey have indicated that they disagree with the government’s geopolitical shift to the Indo-Pacific. Here is Healey again: “It’s fine to send a new aircraft carrier on a gap-year tour of the Pacific. But its real job has got to be in the Atlantic and in the Med. It’s marginal to any balance of power in the Indo-Pacific; in the Atlantic, in the Arctic, as far as the northern European security is concerned it’s pivotal.” Lammy said something similar at the start of last year.
But the bulk of Labour’s defence policy won’t be finalised until its first-year strategic defence and security review is complete. I’m told it will aim to emulate the 1997-98 one in its ambition. The difference, however, is that back then New Labour was capitalising on a peace dividend and recalibrating the armed forces away from traditional European land battles and towards rapidly deployable expeditionary forces. That no longer holds. As one source put it: “It was the opposite of where we are now.”
If that’s the case, and Labour wants to rebuild capability, then more money will be needed. Here’s where Healey’s desire for both spending restraint and a strong line on defence might come into conflict. Last month the National Audit Office found a £16.9bn shortfall in the MoD’s equipment plan for the next decade, which is largely due to the large costs of naval programmes, inflation and nuclear deterrent renewal. Remember, a Labour government would assume the costs (between £31bn and £41bn) of renewing Trident. On top of that is resolving problems with recruitment and retention. The Telegraph reported over the weekend the government couldn’t send a British aircraft carrier to the Red Sea because it didn’t have enough sailors. These are expensive problems to fix.
“Labour will always spend what it takes to defend the country; we also want to spend it well and ensure there’s value for money,” another source said. That’s a fine balance. Resolving problems with staff retention could fall under Labour’s “invest to save” tagline. Ensuring procurement helps British manufacturing could fall under “invest to grow”.
But without the economic growth that underpins most of the party’s policy programme, a Labour government will be faced with a problem: how to restore the fighting capability of the armed forces while abiding by Reeves’s self-imposed spending restraints.
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