“Labour can speak for the squaddie”: Healey sets out approach to defence

Sienna Rodgers
© Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey set out his approach to the policy brief and plan to win back the trust of the armed forces in an exclusive interview with LabourList broadcast live on Tuesday evening.

The online event saw the long-serving shadow cabinet member cover coronavirus, the election of Joe Biden in the US, the changing nature of warfare, the recent overseas operations bill and the impact of Brexit on defence.

Healey told LabourList that he had not suggested a move to defence before being appointed by Keir Starmer, but that the new Labour leader had asked him to “develop an authoritative Labour voice on defence again”.

The shadow cabinet member said he wanted people to know that “Labour could speak for the squaddie” while also maintaining its “adherence to international law, human rights and those sort of values”.

Asked about the scale of Labour’s challenge in the policy area for which he is responsible, Healey said: “Quite simply, defence and security may not win Labour an election, but it can be a big factor in us losing another election.

“On defence and security, we had an even greater deficit than we do on the economy… These are deep deficits, damage our standing in the public mind, which aren’t attached to particular policies but are something we must tackle.”

On the 2019 election campaign, he added: “Anyone who reads LabourList that knocked on doors in that December election will know that the toughest doors to knock were those with Help for Heroes or British Legion stickers in the windows.

“It was in most cases not even possible to ask the question, let alone get a hearing. Labour was so far ruled out in people’s minds… Despite the change of leadership, we are still 21 points behind the Tories on defence and security.”

The Shadow Defence Secretary said armed forces and their families should be “part of the natural base” for Labour, yet the voter group had slipped away over the “last couple of decades – and decisively so in 2019”.

Emphasising that winning back trust is  a “four-year project”, Healey said this was needed after “fundamental shifts” took place, starting under the last Labour government – the ‘squeezed middle’ and a “cultural and social sense of alienation”.

Labour “failed to pick up” on these changes, Healey told LabourList, and the sense of alienation experienced by former supporters was used by Nigel Farage and “found its full expression” in the Brexit referendum.

Plans for Labour policy

Asked about Starmer’s campaign pledges on a “Prevention of Military Intervention Act”, Healey said the leader “quite rightly” wants to establish the principle that government must refer to parliament and the public before taking military action.

Healey mentioned the relaunch of Labour Friends of the Forces, saying “over 400 people” had already joined since June, and revealed: “We are set to launch a call for evidence about the way this country fails its veterans.”

He added: “The first duty of any government, including any Labour government, has got to be to safeguard the country – that’s surely not a point of contention – and to be a force for good in the world.”

The role of the armed forces during coronavirus

“Our troops have been building hospitals, distributing PPE [personal protective equipment], helping run testing and behind-the-scenes planning,” he said. “They’re part and parcel of our resilience as a country.”

Healey said he was supportive of the armed forces contributing to the UK’s Covid efforts, but highlighted that the public “deserve to know how the forces are being used” and regular reports from ministers.

He described Labour’s 2019 commitment on creating a representative body for the armed forces as a “good policy”, and criticised Defence Secretary Ben Wallace for failing to improve public understanding of the forces during Covid.

Holding the Treasury responsible for the delay to the integrated review, Healey said it was needed “now more than ever” as the UK faces “an unprecedented escalation of technology, greater complexity, fresh threats and adversaries”.

The election of Joe Biden

“I think the upsides are very significant,” Healey said of the US Presidential election result. Listing the Paris climate change agreement among other positives, he concluded: “Joe Biden is an internationalist.”

He said of the new President-Elect: “I also believe that he is likely to be more interested in some of the really critical multilateral treaties that help to govern some of the proliferation of some of our worst nuclear weapons.”

The changing nature of warfare

Healey struck an optimistic note when he told LabourList that the level of training of British troops operating remote weaponry is “very high indeed” and “likely to lead to fewer casualties and better targeting”.

He said the developments, however, add “a new lethal level in the hands of other countries”, as: “We simply don’t yet have an architecture of international law or proper military convention to deal with some of the new domains of warfare.”

“I can certainly see over the next decade a much greater use of artificial intelligence, of robotics,” the frontbencher said. But he stressed that personnel would remain “indispensable”, as shown by their contribution during Covid.

Asked about General Sir Patrick Sanders noting that there is no longer the same binary distinction between war and peace, Healey replied: “I do agree with that. It’s why the integrated review is so essential…

“For most of us, we don’t see the conflict, the aggression, the threats in practice that our defence and security systems are repelling and protecting us from on a continuous basis in the same way as we did with the very obvious, more traditional forms of conflict.”

The overseas operations bill

Labour whipped MPs to abstain on the second reading of the government’s controversial overseas operations bill, which led to the party losing three frontbenchers, but at third reading instructed MPs to vote against it.

Healey commented: “I’m really sad we lost Beth Winter, Nadia Whittome and Olivia Blake. They’re all newly-elected, really talented, good, centre-left Labour MPs for the future, but I recognise people have strongly-held views on this.”

He explained that “simply voting against the bill” at second reading “risked denying the problem” of vexatious claims against military personnel and veterans who have been repeatedly investigated for alleged war crimes.

“I did not want us to walk into what is totally a Tory trap, which is a very crude attempt to continue the divisive culture war conflict, to re-stoke the sentiments that were there in the Brexit debate and vote.

“It is no coincidence that the [Tory manifesto pledge on this issue] was squeezed between the pledge to legislate for tougher penalties for terrorists so they spend longer in jail and the pledge to legislate for a tougher asylum system.”

Describing the bill as “an attempt to paint the Labour Party into a particular corner”, Healey said: “I was not going to have that.” He said he worked to “forge a consensus” to improve the “dishonest” bill, but ministers would not change it.

Labour was “confronted with ministers who are simply interested in a political fight and not the policy”, the Shadow Defence Secretary said, before adding: “I and Keir Starmer wanted to hold the party together, which we have.”

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Asked about the treaty by a reader, Healey said: “I think it’s an important milestone.” He described de-escalation talks as “impossible when you had Donald Trump in the White House… but something that potentially may be possible now.”

Homelessness affecting veterans

Healey, who was previously Shadow Housing Secretary before taking on the defence role, said: “We went into the election with a plan to end homelessness, and do that within five years. I was very proud of that.

“It was something [on which] I had the most unfailing support from Jeremy Corbyn as leader – we shared that passion. We had many meetings with homeless charities and people together.”

Trident and shipbuilding

On the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear programme, Healey said: “We went into the last election, 2017, 2015, 2010 election with a commitment to maintain Trident. It’s part of our duty, as I see it, as a P5 [UN Security Council] member.”

He also argued that Britain’s support ships “must be built in Britain”, which would “protect jobs, help keep the shipyards going and help maintain skills”, yet the government has “still not given” this commitment.

The impact of Brexit on UK defence

Asked what would be the effect of Brexit on UK defence policy, Healey replied: “I don’t know. It’s not clear. There’s been virtually no attention given to the security and defence arrangements that should continue on exit.

“I think it’s a big loss, not being part of that Galileo system. We were one of the countries that led the way in setting it up. We’ve led on some of the technology that has been central to its development so far.

“The lesson I take from this is that we need to redouble our commitment to working with allies through NATO… We downgrade, or cool on, our commitment to NATO in my view at our peril.”

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