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Secure outlook

Labour can rebuild its credibility by articulating its priorities on defence, writes Joe Devanny.


Long read

Boris Johnson has promised – emphatically but vaguely, as is his style – that the next strategic review of national security will be Britain’s ‘biggest’ since the end of the Cold War. Formally known as the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, responding to it will be the most significant national security challenge yet faced by the Labour party under Keir Starmer’s leadership. Labour’s response to the delayed review, at least part of which is still expected before the end of the year, should be shaped by its answers to a series of questions that lie at the heart of any national security review.

These questions can be summarised as follows: given the party’s assessment of the domestic and international threats facing the UK, and its ambitions for what the UK should try to achieve in its international policies, what combination of capabilities is required both to address these threats and to enable effective pursuit of those objectives? And to what extent can this combination of capabilities be afforded, either by the UK individually or as part of a network of alliances?

The Conservatives have the benefit of the machinery of government in conducting the integrated review, but in opposition Labour will need to draw widely from within its movement and beyond to prepare its response. Labour should signal clearly where it dissents from strategic decisions made in the review (or made before the review, such as the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and provide some coherent sense of the alternative approach it would pursue in government.

An obvious place to start is to focus on the numbers. Over the last decade, UK military expenditure fell from around 5.5 to 4.5 per cent of total government expenditure, reflecting the cuts to defence which formed part of the coalition government’s austerity strategy. The coalition’s strategic defence and security review in 2010 planned by 2020 to reduce the size of the armed forces by 19 per cent (hoping to offset this reduction by increasing the trained strength of the reserves by 50 per cent) and of the defence civilian workforce by 38 per cent. There has been a shortfall even in meeting these reduced targets, with the latest figures indicating a gap between actual and required armed forces of over 11000 personnel (8 per cent of the required target). Defence has also struggled to fund its equipment programmes, with the National Audit Office estimating in February a worst-case shortfall in the equipment plan of up to £13bn between 2019 and 2029. And this was all before the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic emergency.

The integrated review is therefore proceeding against the backdrop of a bruising decade for defence. Shadow defence secretary John Healey, newly appointed by Starmer in April, has already criticised these Conservative cuts to the armed forces. Unless Labour repositions following reflection on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we can expect it to criticise any further cuts to the size or budget of the armed forces as a result of the integrated review.

Opposing cuts without context or an alternative plan is not, however, a credible platform for Labour’s response to the review. And a narrow focus on the numbers – smaller armed forces, fewer platforms (aircraft, tanks, ships, etc) – tells us nothing about the quality of what is left, nor about the government’s or Labour’s competing strategies for how defence capabilities are meant to contribute to national security or the pursuit of international objectives. Put simply, it doesn’t make sense for Labour to criticise the review’s proposals for the size of the armed forces or the composition of the equipment plan without being able to offer an informed view about better alternatives. The starting point for this is a strategic assessment of threats and opportunities facing the UK and prioritisation of the objectives that the party thinks the UK government should be trying to achieve.

The obvious first step in this direction would have been for former leader Jeremy Corbyn to commission a shadow review when Johnson announced the integrated review in February. In the circumstances, given that he was by then essentially a caretaker leader and with personal credibility issues on security, it is perhaps unsurprising that Corbyn chose not to do so. Still, Starmer could have announced such a review in April. His failure to do so must count as a missed opportunity to demonstrate publicly that Labour was moving towards a coherent position on national security ahead of the integrated review.

In the apparent absence of a more coherent approach, Labour has advanced a series of policy positions that collectively indicate its current thinking on national strategy, such as Lisa Nandy and Stephen Kinnock’s tough statements on Hong Kong, Nick Thomas-Symonds’s criticism of the government’s asylum and immigration policies, and Healey’s aforementioned critique of shortcomings in defence policy. It is difficult at this stage to extrapolate from these individual statements a synoptic view of the party’s emerging, implicit national security strategy.

With rare exceptions, defence strategy has been a relatively bipartisan issue for much of the period since 1945. A government more committed than Johnson’s to securing cross-party support for the integrated review’s conclusions might, for example, have announced that it would invite Starmer to attend some meetings of the National Security Council as part of the review process. In the absence of that or similar access, the party will instead need to draw its own conclusions about what a credible and affordable national security strategy for the 2020s should look like.

After the era of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, the leitmotif of contemporary strategic debate is the return of great power competition, framed particularly around the need to address threats posed by Russia and China. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 stimulated a significant shift in NATO’s deterrence posture on its eastern flank. For Labour, failure to respond robustly to the Russian 2018 chemical weapon attack in Salisbury was one of the lowest points in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

On China, the Conservative government’s strategy has shifted sharply over the last decade. The coalition government pursued a ‘golden era’ approach to the bilateral relationship, driven by trade and investment priorities and associated with former chancellor George Osborne. This approach even provoked a public rebuke from the Obama administration for ‘constant accommodation’ of China. Post-Brexit, pursuing a China policy independent from the US has proved increasingly difficult, with US restrictions on Huawei ultimately forcing the Johnson government to U-turn on that company’s role in building 5G communications infrastructure in Britain.

The pathway to a coherent and electorally credible Labour party national security strategy is not to try to ‘out hawk’ the most hawkish Conservative voices on Russia or China. It does, however, require reflection on the extent to which the UK enjoys strategic autonomy within its ‘special relationship’ with the US, as well as on how best to use what influence the UK possesses to shape views within NATO and the broader ‘West’ on how to understand and address the geopolitical challenges (and opportunities) posed especially by China’s rise. The UK has limited influence, limited room to manoeuvre, and limited resources, so it is imperative that deep analysis and understanding precedes decisions on how to maximise the UK contribution to pursuing narrowly national and more widely shared objectives in this geopolitical conjuncture.

Another example of potential policy divergence is the long-standing difference of opinion between Labour and the government on arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the conflict in Yemen. Translated into wider strategy, this position has potentially significant implications for a Starmer government’s Gulf strategy, including diplomatic, trade and investment relationships, as well as regional defence commitments and the vitality of the UK arms industry. The integrated review may now come too soon for Labour to provide a coherent exposition of the extent to which its views of Gulf strategy diverge from those explicit or implicit in Johnson’s review. At a minimum, the relevant shadow frontbench teams should coordinate with the leader’s office to produce a coherent approach as part of preparation for government work ahead of the next general election.

Similarly, as an internationalist party Labour comes naturally to a central feature of recent UK national strategy, namely that the burden of collective security should be shared with allies. It is in the context of the country’s alliances, most notably NATO, that individual decisions about capability should be assessed. For example, one of the many pre-review stories floated in the press in August was that the army might place its tanks into storage and focus on developing other capabilities. Whatever the merits or seriousness of this proposal, it reflects the fact that the rising cost of cutting-edge defence technology means that we can afford fewer of them, and need to make hard choices about what to do without, aiming to ensure that any capability gaps are addressed within alliances. Labour should develop a view about the extent to which the UK can prudently pursue further specialisation within an alliance context, rather than seek to build prohibitively-expensive ‘tier one’ full spectrum capabilities as an insurance policy against possible future alliance unreliability. One elephant in the room is, of course, the outcome of November’s US presidential election. A Biden administration is infinitely preferable to four more years of Trump’s shambolic unpredictability, but whatever the outcome European members of NATO – including the UK – should embrace the calls of successive US presidents to take their own defence more seriously.

Just as it is necessary for the UK to burden-share and cooperate with allies, so too is it imperative for the UK to improve its domestic execution of the ’whole force approach’ – which aims to better integrate the regular armed forces, defence civilians, reservists and private sector contractors. Particularly as the size of the armed forces has been reduced, more roles need to be undertaken by reservists and contractors. Certainly before the next election, Labour should review the configuration of reserve and industry roles in defence strategy, assessing progress and shortcomings in the implementation of the integrated review as a baseline for what Labour would need to achieve in government. This is particularly important in specialist and technical areas where defence must compete with the private sector for scarce skills and experience in the national labour market, for example in cyber security.

Unless Johnson’s review implodes and loses the confidence of his parliamentary party, the Conservative majority of 80 should ensure that Labour’s effective influence over the review is limited. This is no excuse for failing to prepare. Johnson’s hyperbole surrounding the review has made its profile even higher than such reviews usually are, and there are relatively few moments in opposition where Labour can count on an audience for its detailed views on any issue of national policy.

Given the complexity of the issues and the diversity of views on defence and security within the wider Labour movement, it might be seen as a safe option to simply focus on criticising unpopular choices made by the review, without advancing an alternative constructive case. This would not, however, engender public confidence that Labour has started to develop the understanding necessary to implement a credible programme on defence and security in government. As the recent third reading vote on the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill again demonstrated, diverging views are strongly held within the parliamentary party on security issues, sufficient on that occasion for over 30 Labour MPs to vote against the bill, including seven who resigned from the frontbench to do so, in defiance of the leadership’s preferred position of abstention. This episode underlines the difficulty of developing a coherent approach to national security, including both substantive policy and political positioning, that establishes broad support within the party and also builds credibility with the wider electorate.

Labour might not need to fight an election until 2024, one year before the next review in the notionally quinquennial cycle, but an election could conceivably come sooner, particular if the Conservative party frees itself from Johnson and chooses a leader better able to compete with Starmer on credibility and competence. Whatever the date of the next general election, Labour should use the integrated review as an opportunity to kickstart its defence and security planning for government. One way to do this would be to announce a shadow national security review, appointing a credible chair (perhaps a former Cabinet minister or an authoritative independent figure) to oversee a coordinated process involving the relevant frontbench teams, the wider movement and outside stakeholders to inform Starmer’s emerging national security strategy. To be credible, that process should take at least 18 months, but with the production of incremental papers on a rolling basis to disseminate publicly – and also to inform preparations for an unexpected general election.

With practical limits on what an opposition frontbench can actually do, Starmer should coordinate the development of his opinion pieces, speeches and international visits with those of his shadow defence, development, home and foreign affairs teams to demonstrate visibly a coherent Labour approach to national security. (And as the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the relationship between global security and public health, the party should also be thinking outside of the traditional silos of national security.) Similarly, recruiting a national security adviser and wider advisory board would be a simple way to convey Starmer’s seriousness about national security and to create a structured forum for the party to test and develop both its wider strategy and responses to specific crises as they occur.

The final published version of the integrated review will look very different from what was intended in December 2019 or February 2020. The economic and geopolitical impact of the coronavirus pandemic crisis has changed the context and outlook shaping the review’s conclusions. This has increased the complexity and urgency of what was already a high-stakes review. In opposition, Labour’s engagement with and response to the review process is necessarily constrained by limited access and resources.

To dispel the doubts about Labour’s national security credentials that spread under Corbyn’s leadership, Starmer needs to make the party’s response to the integrated review a significant personal priority and use the review’s implementation cycle as a framework for developing Labour’s future plans for government. To do so, the party needs to articulate its priorities for national security and explain the understanding of Britain’s global role that informs and determines those priorities. It also needs to be clear and credible about what capabilities the country can afford, as well as where and how it should share the load with allies. Taking national security seriously must be a crucial part of Labour’s electoral rehabilitation.

Image credit: Flickr/Defence images

Joe Devanny

Joe Devanny is a lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and deputy director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s. He writes here in a personal capacity.


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