Labour to win ensured the motion topic “Defence” was debated at labour conference 23. There were only two CLP’s  and only one motion within the topic and as one comrade pointed out the words are at least similar to words that have been put into the Ukraine topic, although I am of the view that these things are better debated separately. The motion states that Labour will continue to support NATO, the need for a nuclear deterrent and that its support the armed forces will be absolute, whatever that means. It also argues that’s a labour government will continue to meet the UK’s NATO commitments, 2.0% of GDP. It also states that a Labour Government will invest in the UK’s defence manufacturing capability, continue to support Ukraine, engage in a ‘new’ EU-UK security pact and develop the AUKUS partnership. It also commits to engaging in multilateral disarmament talks. I suggest its selection as a unique topic was designed to exclude other issues from debate. In this article, I review the debate and then make some criticisms of the way in which the issues are being handled.

The debate was preceded with an address from Bodan Ferens , the founder of Ukraine’s Social Democratic platform and then opened by speeches from David Lammy (Shadow Foreign Minister) and then John Healey (Defence).

David Lammy spoke, starting by deploring the Hamas attack, standing for Israel’s right to defend itself, although putting this in the context of rescuing hostages and degrading the military capability, he also committed to support a two state solution. Was he channelling Penny Mordaunt with his calls to ‘stand up’ for the military and to ‘wake up’ on Europe? While his comments on Europe and the EU were aimed at the Tories they could equally be aimed at Starmer and Reeves, but he loyally repeated the mantra, of no return to the EU, or its single market but we will improve our relations with the EU. He ticked off a recognition to a new military pact with the EU; I am unsure that the EU will be willing to co-operate closely on security issues with non-members not bound to the EU’s charter of fundamental rights and there’s also the French and their suspicion of the US & NATO.

Healey, the shadow defence secretary, spoke next, he decried the Tory reticence to spend the agreed budget leading to delays in rearming the services after the donations to Ukraine, and the delay in the new equipment programmes for all three services. He noted that the last Labour government had been spending 2.5% GDP on defence, thus exceeding the NATO commitments, the army was over 100,000 people strong and that since 2010, the Tories had retired 200 warplanes and half[1] the navy’s ships. He finished his speech by stating the need to have a capability well East of Suez and that a Labour Government would invest in the defence manufacturing economy.

The debate from the floor was in my opinion quite poor, with the exception of Lucy Rigby, PPC for Northants North whose pleas for an international war crimes tribunal to investigate Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine and for Labour to support the rule of law had a necessary prescience.

The movers of the defence motion started with the same first line and basically read the motion out. One of the other speakers said that we were committed to multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, but we need to build more submarines. One speaker claimed that there were UK troops in Ukraine[2]. One speaker came up with the old canard of “fighting for peace”. Of the six floor speakers, three were PPCs although several of the speeches were very parochial as were the movers of the defence motion. The speech was closed by a speaker from Ealing, with an important last line, we need to work for “peace, prosperity and shared progress”.

With the exception of the conference chair, Luke Akehurst and the two front bench speakers, no-one mentioned the middle east nor the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israeli citizens on 7th October, two days previously.

The debate was closed by Lisa Nandy, shadow spokesperson for international development. Key quotes from her speech include the idea that policy should come from, “right thing to do”, and that “human rights are non-negotiable”.

What doesn’t the motion say?

Gross targets are useless, the fact is the Army is too small, and arguably the Navy now planned to be too large. The last Tory defence white paper represented a restatement of the UK’s military capability to encompass a ‘global’ reach with a secretive, undebated and underwhelming rejection of the policy of withdrawal from “East of Suez”. The white paper and motion both fail to articulate why we need a military and who the enemy is or likely to be. Some might argue that the Tory’s white paper suggest the enemy is everyone and Russia’s threat is obvious but our armed forces are clearly not optimised for fighting a war in Europe. This need was not so obvious when the White Paper was conceived.

The motion reads as if it’s designed to troll the left, who often have a naive attitude, accepting a choice between guns and butter. It is also designed to reassure the British people that Labour takes defence seriously. Unfortunately, examination of the motion does not allow informed critics to take this latter claim seriously.

We should not be thanking the Tories for their custody of the UK defence capability over the last 15 years. While in a better state then Cameron’s white paper left it, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven that the UK needs an army capable of supporting its European allies, rather than acting as America’s mercenaries in the rest of the world, noting that the Americans assessment of the British Army’s capability has been seriously damaged by its record in Afghanistan. Mind you I am not averse to a bit of military hardware porn, but we should be suspicious of the claims that we have the best in the world. The US spend so much more than we do and the UK army’s record in Afghanistan was, for the fourth time, poor.

The Defence white paper confirmed the principal axiom of defence policy which has been supported by Labour and Tory governments, that the UK will defend itself with allies. Actually, this policy is centuries old. Another long-term policy, at least since 1998 is that the UK will maintain the capability to mount 1½ expeditionary forces. (I say 1½ because it has been conceived that one of these forces will be a rapid response force not designed to engage with tier one military opponents.) Such a force might be effective, or might have been effective, in defending or retaking the Falkland Islands but it’s the evidence of its capability in more sustained engagements such as Afghanistan that proves that the expeditionary capability of the British Army is not what is required. An effective defence policy needs to talk about the Army, which is the smallest it’s been since 1790. We also need to talk about its equipment and the security and capacity of its supply chains.

When considering defence manufacturing, we need to recognise that the design and manufacture of some weapons systems is now beyond the UK techno-economy. Not only that, but the UK’s needs are also insufficient to provide a sufficient production run on such systems. It is for these reasons the UK has entered multi-national consortia to build such systems as the Typhoon, a war plane, and AJAX, an armoured personnel carrier. It’s also why the UK buys so much from the US, including HIMARS and helicopters and this co-operation even goes to the extent of jointly funding the F35 Lightening.

The other problem the UK has in a potential over-reliance on foreign owned supply chains is that of obtaining ammunition and the flexibility of ownership transfer. We can see from the slow speed at which the US agreed to substitute US warplanes for Poland’s MiGs, and Germany’s agreements to resuse its exported Leopard IIs that it is not always desirable to be reliant on the permission of other countries although as I argue earlier, it is possibly the only way these systems can be afforded.

Again, a defence policy needs to be based on an effective threat analysis, not on the needs of worker’s jobs nor of business profit. A private weapons supply industry doubles the criminality of war

How reliable is NATO?

NATO is the only organisation available capable of co-ordinating western Europe’s response to the invasion of Ukraine, but describing it as foundational is nonsense and ignores its inglorious 30 year “out of theatre” operations. It also ignores the threat of a Trump presidency and the current US priority in the Pacific. Further evidence of its unreliability and the US dominance is illustrated by what was in effect a unilateral withdrawal by the US from Afghanistan.

Lammy ticked off a recognition to a new military pact with the EU. How will this work with the EU even with a multi-speed Europe. The leading EU military states have been seeking to increase their co-operation, can NATO transition to a European defence capability? And if so, why would the EU want to work on an other relationship outside the Strategic Compass? The French have had a historic reticence to work with NATO and vetoed the Iraq 2nd resolution in the UN. The Brexiteers, including those in the Labour Party have always under-estimated the EU’s requirement that police and intelligence gathering activity is subject to the rule of law, and that they prefer to co-operate with full members of the Justice pillar, committed to the Charter of Fundamental Rights because “Human Rights are non-negotiable”.

I am of the view that the Labour front bench will try and trade military co-operation for single market cakeism with the EU. We’ll see what happens but I would prefer that we approached both issues from a matter of principle and not a fearful electoral strategy.

The lines on AUKUS serve two roles, the first is to trolling the left, and also illustrates the problems with production line run lengths. The Australians want to buy nuclear powered (non-ballistic) subs. If the EU has worked more quickly towards common supply chains there might have been an anglo-french offering. I am of the view that if you need a combat oceanic Navy, you need hunter killer submarines as they are they key anti-ship weapon in today’s navies. However, the second reason, is that the US focus on the pacific required them and not the French to be the suppliers of this technology to Australia and the UK’s engagement is part of its return to “East of Suez”.

Once again, I believe the UK will try and punch above its weight, which will mean it fails in both theatres. There are serious problems to solve and jingoistic slogans will not be the answer.

[1] This doesn’t sound right, but is what he said.

[2] It seems there are.

Labour’s defence promises
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