Despite the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic, this week the Labour Party has remembered those who faced an even greater threat. Keir Starmer represented our party at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and, across the country, Labour MPs were in their constituencies undertaking social distanced ceremonies to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, whilst we remember the fallen, Labour must also begin to build an agenda to support our armed forces today.
For all the poppies purchased and tweets of support, the way our armed personnel are treated remains a disgrace. The transition from serving our country in the military to returning to civilian life too often leads to immense hardship. Figures show that unemployment amongst ex-service personnel is twice the national average. A member of the armed forces is more likely to be homeless or in prison. Alcoholism disproportionately impacts veterans and their families.
The psychological harm that can be caused from action is real: male soldiers under 30 are three times more likely to be convicted of violent offences than their civilian counterparts. There are particularly shocking examples of ex-service men and women who are forgotten – such as Taitusi Raticaucau, a Commonwealth veteran who fought for our country with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan but faces a £30,000 bill for an NHS operation due to our arcane and ridiculous immigration laws.
Labour is not trusted by many of our veterans, however. As John Healey, Shadow Defence Secretary, told LabourList this week, the “toughest doors to knock at the last election were those with Help for Heroes or British Legion stickers in the windows”. This is a remarkably troubling position for a patriotic party of public service that seeks to offer protection for the most vulnerable.
Whilst Labour has been prominent over the last decade in calling for better conditions for frontline workers in schools and hospitals, there has sometimes been a reluctance to talk about the problems facing our armed forces – when in service or as civilians. As Stephen Morgan MP and Sarah Church have pointed out in a LabourList piece, our armed forces have been at the frontline of our response to Covid-19, such as in the construction of Nightingale Hospitals or the distribution of tests. We clapped for them, too, each Thursday night during the first lockdown – and that should be recognised in our agenda.
Under Keir Starmer and John Healey, our approach has been different. Healey has relaunched Labour Friends of the Forces to reach out and listen to those men and women who are or have served their country. He told LabourList that there is to be a call for evidence over the coming months to analyse and better understand how to ensure veterans are supported. Listening is the starting point to regain trust.
Labour’s relationship with our armed forces and defence is of profound political importance. Polls show that on defence and security, Labour was simply not trusted under the last leadership. Even some of Jeremy Corbyn’s most senior acolytes accept that his response to the Salisbury attack was a critical moment in losing the election.
And the Tories understand this. It is why they will attempt to find means to paint Labour as a party weak on security and defence. A perfect example is the overseas operation (services personnel and veterans) bill. The bill’s aim, to prevent vexatious litigation against our armed personnel, appears welcome: there is a problem with cases dragging veterans through the courts for years with scant evidence of any wrongdoing, and this must be prevented.
Yet the bill uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and ends up harming our forces’ rights and our country’s global reputation. The bill has two central aspects. Firstly, it heightens the threshold by which a prosecution of a current or former armed forces personnel for alleged offences committed on duty, essentially providing immunity in many circumstances. Secondly, it bars any claim for personal injury or death after six years.
As ex-British Army major Dan Jarvis MP has argued, the statutory presumption and time bar will be “harmful to Britain’s standing in the world and to the reputation of our armed forces”. It may also be unlawful, in breach of our international obligations (the UN Convention against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and the Rome statute) and the European Convention of Human Rights. It is difficult to see how the bill aligns with the right to freedom from torture, or inhumane treatment, for example, as it would make it far harder – and in some circumstances impossible – to prosecute the use of torture in our courts.
Further, in the words of Charles Byrne, the director general of the Royal British Legion, this is a bill that is “protecting the Ministry of Defence, rather than the service personnel”. The second aspect of the bill – the extension of limitation – will prevent veterans bringing claims against the Ministry of Defence for compensation if they have suffered injuries or worse as a result of negligent treatment in combat or in training. For example, those who have been hurt due to ‘friendly fire’ due to the inadequacies of technology may be prevented from accessing justice.
In fact, vexatious litigation can be stifled by more thorough investigations, better information processing, further training, as well as modest procedural reforms. One cannot help but think that the government decided upon an unhelpfully radical proposal – driven by their excitable veterans’ minister Johnny Mercer – for political reasons, as an attempt to divide and portray Labour as weak. Actually, by mature opposition, offering serious scrutiny, opposing for good reason and not point-scoring, Labour has emerged as the voice for our armed forces, on this particular issue at least.
There is a test for the Labour Party. At the next election, when we see a Help for Heroes logo on a front door, or a poppy sticker in a window, will we knock with hope or dread the reaction we might receive? There is a long way to go, but Keir Starmer and John Healey have begun the process of regaining trust with our veterans and armed services personnel.