Labour's Defence Approach in Brief: Securing Britain Home and Abroad
The heightened global instability, characterised by the war in Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict, broader turbulence in the Middle East, and escalating tensions in the South China Sea; compels us to rethink our approach to defence. With the upcoming UK General Election, the defence sector and the wider public are now looking to the Labour Party to specify its vision for the defence enterprise. This article delves into the key features of what the Shadow Defence Team has outlined to date.
Addressing the Labour Party Conference in October, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, John Healey, underscored Labour's steadfast commitment to defence. He highlighted the party's historical role in introducing the nuclear deterrent and bringing the UK into NATO, emphasising how a Labour Government would navigate the complex challenges of an increasingly contested world.
The Shadow Defence Team has pledged to conduct a comprehensive strategic defence and security review within its first year in government, providing a concrete plan that will outline how Labour will achieve its core objectives. Reflecting on statements, articles and appearances, there are three key strands of Labour’s approach to defence. First, an unwavering commitment to building and strengthening strategic alliances internationally, secondly, an effort to address inefficiencies in the procurement system to reallocate funds and enhance sovereign industrial capabilities; and lastly, a commitment to improving the nation’s moral relationship with those in service, making long-term decisions to improve the quality of life of serving personnel. The overarching emphasis in Labour’s approach is to transform the way defence operates to protect UK’s interests both home and abroad.
Labour's defence strategy revolves around forging new alliances and deepening existing partnerships to bolster the UK's resilience against emerging threats. In an era defined by competition, Labour argues for forging new defence pacts with close neighbours such as France, Germany, and the European Union. Healey recently stated that within the first six months of taking office, Labour would seek a bilateral security and defence treaty with Germany, signaling the UK's commitment to reclaiming its leadership role in European defence. On a broader scale, Labour aims to increase cooperation with allies further afield, continuing to develop the AUKUS partnership with Australia and the United States while cultivating deeper Indo-Pacific partnerships.
Additionally, Labour has reaffirmed its absolute commitment to both NATO and the nuclear deterrent, with a set goal to test major defence programs to ensure that the UK continues to meet its NATO obligations.
Coupled with this emphasis on growing partnerships, Labour seeks to bolster the UK Government’s relationship with the British defence industry. Healey outlined in his conference speech that the UK had wasted “billions, too often creating jobs abroad, not building in Britain”, claiming that “since 2010, we have seen Ministers waste at least £15 billion of taxpayers’ money through MOD mismanagement in procurement, with £5 billion wasted since 2019 when the Defence Secretary took up his post”.
Instead, Labour will aim to transform the procurement system, ensuring that the UK defence manufacturing base receives the investment it needs to grow, on one hand ensuring that UK Armed Forces have the equipment needed to defend the UK, while also ensuring that as much of our defence equipment as possible is designed and built in the UK, creating jobs and economic growth. Under Labour it will be made fundamental to direct British defence investment first to British business, with a higher bar set for any decisions to buy internationally. The aim of which is to supercharge the British defence industry, providing long-term resilience to meet the challenges of an increasingly contested environment.
This course is reinforced by the recent inclusion of Maria Eagle as Shadow Minister for Defence Procurement. Eagle, brings a wealth of experience, having held prominent positions on the front bench in junior ministerial positions during the Blair and Brown governments. Another noteworthy addition to the Shadow Defence Team is Steve McCabe, who brings extensive experience having served in various junior ministerial positions in Blair’s Government. McCabe’s appointment as Shadow Minister for Veterans in late November underscores the Labour Party’s commitment not only to strengthening the UK’s influence abroad, while ensuring national security, but also to advocating for the welfare of defence personnel whether it be those in service, their families or veterans.
Being a part of the military is the ultimate public service, yet, as the Labour party has highlighted, satisfaction of service personnel has dwindled from 60% when Labour left office to 40%. This has been accompanied by falling morale leading to large levels of personnel leaving the service. If elected, Labour has declared that they will prioritise the restoration of the “nation’s moral contract with those who serve”. This, as the Shadow Defence Team has stated, will start by investing in good quality, affordable homes for Armed Forces personnel. Labour’s overarching goal is to make long-term decisions that ensure the Armed Forces can consistently attract, train and retain talent.
While some critics argue that Labour's defence priorities focus more on approaches and policy ideas than introducing new capabilities, this is largely attributed to fiscal uncertainty which can limit the actions of an incoming Government. Nonetheless, the Shadow Defence Team is positioned to address the nuanced challenges of tomorrow, laying out priorities that seek to re-establish the UK as a leader within the NATO alliance, renew the nation's moral contract with those who serve, and bring about long-overdue changes to the UK's defence procurement system, ultimately with the aim to bolster British industry creating more job opportunities at home.
The author is Managing Director at CMS Strategic – a specialist communications consultancy for the defence, aerospace, and security sectors. CMS Strategic provides proven expert counsel in public, political and media relations, business development and reputation management.