I am surprised to see John Healey through the security glass at Westminster’s Portcullis House. Rather than send a parliamentary staffer, he has come to pick me up from the waiting area himself – a rarity for MPs, and unheard of for frontbenchers. But after 26 years in parliament, perhaps any residual sense of self-importance has worn off. Or perhaps it was never there to begin with: in a career spanning nearly three decades, including nine years as a minister in the New Labour governments, John Healey has rarely courted either controversy or the limelight.
It is easy to see how this understated approach might have been appealing to Keir Starmer when he was looking to appoint a shadow secretary of state for defence in April 2020. By the time of the 2019 election, Labour were 25 points behind the Tories on defence and security; vagueness about Trident renewal and support for NATO had proven to be red meat for then-leader Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents. Starmer needed a safe pair of hands, and in Healey, found someone who has successfully navigated a lengthy political career upset-free.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Healey making any sort of gaffe. He is measured, and scarcely stops smiling, including when I ask him about the shadow cabinet split over repealing the Public Order Act, which has given law enforcement unprecedented powers to crack down on public protest. (The week before, David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, had said that it might take up too much parliamentary time.) Unexpectedly, Healey comes right out and says it: the Tories are engaging in “hard right virtue-signalling” – and it didn’t do them any good in the local elections.
“[Labour] focused on people’s concerns and pressures on the cost of living, and their worries about getting access to the NHS because of the lack of staff stemming from decisions the Tories over 13 years have made on the NHS. They were talking about small boats and demonstrators with placards and superglue.
“That’s all they talked about in their local elections campaign and they lost over 1,000 seats. In the end, the ballot box doesn’t lie.”
That Healey is willing to be more forthright on the issue than other senior Labour figures makes sense on paper – for one thing, in his pre-parliamentary days, he was a member of Amnesty and Liberty. Is this an odd profile for a shadow defence minister? Not if you see defence, as Healey does, as a key part of the wider Labour project.
“The first duty of any government is to defend the country and keep citizens safe,” he says.
“And in the end, we are the party of public service, and those who serve in our armed forces – that’s the ultimate public service.”
As you might expect, Healey is keen to stress Labour’s return to the mainstream on issues of defence. He points out Labour’s role in setting up NATO after the second world war – “a history and association we’re very proud of still today” – and in establishing an independent nuclear deterrent – “to which we remain totally committed.” But there are also signs of something more compelling: a distinctively Labour approach to defence.
“Not all of the focus of Labour support for Ukraine or standing against Russia has been led in parliament. We’ve had some of our trade unions active in the Ukraine solidarity campaign, unions like the GMB, ASLEF, the National Union of Mineworkers. We’ve had Labour MPs that have driven vans with medical supplies out to Ukraine. There’s been a broad labour movement support for the leadership that Keir has demonstrated on defence and on Ukraine in particular.”
This is an interesting point – perhaps foreign policy, which so divided Labour during the Corbyn years, could now be a source of unity.
Ukraine has reminded us, which we’d lost sight of under the Tories – under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – that allies matter
Looking at the public response, Healey’s drive to integrate defence into Labour’s broader vision is going spectacularly well. When he was given the brief in April 2020, there was a full 30-point gap between the Conservatives and Labour on defence and security, with 43 per cent of people thinking that the Tories would do a better job. That gap now sits at just 6 points, and at times has been as low as three. What might that mean for Labour come next year?
“Defence will never win elections. But if we had not worked at closing that gap, and we’ve still got more to do, then defence could have been part of losing the next election like it was in 2019 and like it has been in previous elections.
“In December 2019, when we went into the election, there was a bigger gap in the public’s trust in Labour on defence and security than there was on economic management.”
Rebuilding trust with the British public is one thing; doing the same internationally might prove more of a challenge. Healey tells me that the UK is still suffering the effects of the Johnson and Truss administrations on the world stage.
The Truss premiership, in particular, had significant defence implications. “It damaged Britain’s reputation and status abroad. [It damaged] the confidence that other allied countries could have in Britain as a reliable ally and a stable country,” he says.
Interestingly, the only time Healey looks even a little uncomfortable is when I suggest that the long delays plaguing UK assistance suggest that, despite widespread public support for Ukraine, the government is beginning to waver.
“I’m proud of the UK leadership [on] help for Ukraine. It isn’t just that we have often been early movers in providing weapons training and other support. Ukraine has reminded us, which we’d lost sight of under the Tories – under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – that allies matter. And just as important has been our influence, and encouraging other countries to do more as well. So what I want to be able to say in six months’ time is the UK has still led efforts to stand by Ukraine and provide them with what they need to defend their country and see off Putin’s invasion.”
But he adds: “What worries me is signs of a loss of momentum behind that UK support, that momentum may be flagging. The defence secretary has not made a statement in the House of Commons on Ukraine since January. Britain has made no new commitment of weapons or support for Ukraine since February. There is no 2023 ‘plan for Ukraine’ covering military, diplomatic, and humanitarian help, despite that first being promised back in August.”
“Zelensky has made [it] really clear: he needs more support, more military aid, he needs it quickly – and he needs it in order to mount what must become a successful counteroffensive against the Russians.”
When Labour left government in 2010, we were spending 2.5 per cent of national income on defence. That’s a level that’s never been matched since – or got anywhere close to
After a conversation with Healey, it becomes difficult to remember why the Conservatives are traditionally seen as the party of the military. Perhaps less immediately visible than in more public-facing sectors, spending cuts to the army under the banner of austerity have led to a massive reduction in personnel – from around 100,000 throughout the New Labour years to fewer than 77,000 as of January this year. And, despite the outbreak of the largest European conflict since the second world war, military chiefs are pressing ahead with further reductions, with a planned army size of around 73,000 by 2025.
“It’s cost cutting. It’s cost cutting like it’s been for 13 years.
“When Labour left government in 2010, we were spending 2.5 per cent of national income on defence. That’s a level that’s never been matched [since] – or got anywhere close to. We’re bumping along just above the NATO two per cent threshold.”
“And so I see this plan, still in place, to cut the British army to its smallest size since Napoleonic days as driven by costs, and the need to cut costs, not driven by the risks that we face.
“Quite honestly, you just need to listen to [defence secretary] Ben Wallace. He admitted in the House of Commons to me the other day that they’ve hollowed out and underfunded the forces.”
Such a plan will also leave us out of step with our NATO allies, Healey says. “Putin’s invasion 440 days ago was an electric shock to the military mindset – [to] defence planning for NATO in particular, but more widely. Since that day in February, 22 other NATO nations have rebooted their defence spending. Within days, you had Scholz in Germany announcing an extra €100bn, plus a lift in their baseline, in the Zeitenwende speech; you’ve had Macron making the same commitment in France; you’ve got Poland, Lithuania, Estonia now spending over 3 per cent of GDP. Poland just hit 4 per cent this year. That rebooting of thinking about defence and security – not just now to support Ukraine, but in the expectation that we face an aggressive Russia, with or without Putin, over the next decade – is a fundamental rethink that we’ve still not done in this country.”
Just as damning of the government is that, in addition to his role as shadow defence minister, Healey is also effectively having to act as MP for the armed forces.
“We’ve been giving voice in recent months to service families who just can’t get their accommodation fixed. They’re living with water coming through their kids’ bedrooms, mould on the walls, broken boilers. One in three service families are in accommodation awaiting repair. More than 4,000 service personnel are in accommodation which is so bad the MoD isn’t even charging them rent. But they don’t have a voice because they’re serving.”
“The long and the short of this is: it has never been the top priority of the military or political leaders in the last 13 years. If it was it would have been fixed.”
It seems to me that, for Healey, the old ‘lions led by donkeys’ cliché rings true today. In the evacuation operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, for instance, Healey says, “the crisis military response was magnificent.”
“But in both cases, it appears to have caught the British government unprepared.
“From Sudan, there are serious questions about how other countries, even before the ceasefire was in place, were able to get their nationals, their citizens, out and we appeared to be playing catch-up.”
Those suffering as a result of Tory rule may not have too long to wait. The turnaround in public support for Labour on defence has been mirrored across the board, and a majority government is a realistic prospect for the first time in years. An obvious driver of this shift is the legacy of the Truss administration, but Healey thinks the role of Keir Starmer cannot be overlooked.
“When he took over in April 2020, he set out to do in five years, one parliament, what Kinnock, Smith and Blair did over 14 years. Any comparison of now with 1992 to 1997 is flawed – the comparison is 1983–97.”
If Labour can finally get it over the line, Healey’s long hiatus from government will be over. Is he looking forward to it? “Opposition is pants,” he tells me. “Absolutely nothing to recommend it at all.”
Image credit: Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit (pinned P&I): Birmingham City Council via Flickr