“A new and powerful role for Britain in the world” – Healey’s conference speech

John Healey

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey to the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton this morning.

Conference, it’s an honour to address you again and to serve the party on Labour’s frontbench. Over 20 years, I’ve served for one single purpose: to win a Labour government. The first duty of any government is to defend the country and keep its citizens safe. It’s also the public’s first test of any party aspiring to government. That’s why Keir Starmer has pledged:”Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security.” That’s a pledge, I trust, everyone in our party – from every part of our great, diverse Labour movement – will endorse.

We are a party with deep roots in defending this country. Throughout the last century, it’s been working men and women who’ve served on the frontline. Fighting and sometimes dying for our country. It was Labour that established NATO and the British deterrent – commitments that have been unshakeable for every Labour leadership since the end of the Cold War. We are a party with deep pride in forging international law and security. The Geneva conventions, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were all signed by Labour Prime Ministers.

We are a party with deep respect for the serving men and women of our armed forces. Theirs is the ultimate public service. They embody the qualities British people most admire: courage, discipline, loyalty, good humour, service. They defend the country. They’re essential to our resilience at home. We may yet see this over driving oil tankers. We’ve certainly seen it as they helped the country through the covid crisis – building the Nightingale hospitals, driving ambulances, delivering oxygen, community testing and giving jabs.

Conference, on behalf of this party, I want us to say a huge thank you to them. We saw again last month why British forces are respected worldwide, with UK troops and pilots at the heart of the Afghan airlift. But the crisis has reopened searing memories for many who served in Afghanistan. Combat Stress say calls to their helpline doubled last month, yet the government is spending just £20m this year on veterans’ mental health. So, I want to announce today that Labour would boost this by £35m, with a special fund to support mental health care for British veterans and the Afghan personnel now with us in the UK.

Conference, we’ve seen from this debate today: global instabilities and national threats are greater now than for decades, and growing. Yet Britain is weaker in the world, from a decade of decline under Tory government. They have weakened Britain’s influence in the world by breaking international law, antagonising our European allies, slashing development aid and failing to stand up for human rights. They have weakened the foundations for Britain’s defences by cutting 4,500 full-time forces personnel – leaving fewer troops, fewer planes, fewer ships, bad procurement contracts and a £17bn black hole in the budget. They left Britain unable to influence allies on Afghanistan, questioned over our NATO commitment by US generals and the Prime Minister quoting Muppets to make his case at the United Nations.

The next decade will shape the rest of the century. Britain needs new leadership. With Labour and Keir Starmer, the country will get the leadership to forge a new and powerful role for Britain in the world. Britain will be democracy’s most reliable ally. Britain will no longer be half-hearted about essential alliances and treaties, in the UN, NATO, Five Eyes, International Court of Justice. Britain will forge a flexible geometry of new alliances where needed for our national security and international stability.

We will give the highest priority to security in Europe, North Atlantic and Artic, pursuing new defence cooperation with European NATO neighbours. We will lead moves in the UN to negotiate new multilateral arms controls and rules of conflict for space, cyber and AI. We will insist on the UK’s say with the US as our most essential ally, stepping up Britain’s leadership in NATO. We will make preventing climate conflict a top priority for our national security strategy and international action. We will freeze Tory cuts to the army, then review and reverse the numbers if needed. We will build up the resilience of British democracy to deal with continuous new ‘greyzone’ attacks in cyber, disinformation, terrorism and organised crime.

As the party of working people and trade unions, we know when done well spending on defence can strengthen our UK economy, and our UK sovereignty and security. We will make it fundamental that British defence investment is directed first to British industry. We will design in Britain, build in Britain, maintain in Britain with a higher bar set for any decisions to buy from abroad. Conference, Labour has a proud record in defence of this country, and our values. From Estonia to Mali to the Black Sea to somewhere under the Arctic ice cap, British service men and women are there for us. I say to them – on behalf of us all – that we, Labour, will always be there for you.

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