John Healey’s speech: ‘Labour’s plan for defence in a more dangerous world’ – read and watch in full

John Healey
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

This is a copy of Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey’s speech as written (rather than delivered) for a Policy Exchange event this week.

I want to start by thanking our Armed Forces in the Middle East for their total professionalism.

Our pilots targeting Houthi missile sites. Our sailors protecting freedom of navigation for all nations. Our command-and-control centres managing escalation risks.

This is for real. The “dangerous and more contested world” is here. This is now an era of increasing threats to our UK security, prosperity and values.

Labour’s commitment to NATO, nuclear deterrence and international law is unshakeable

I was appointed Shadow Defence Secretary when Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader nearly four years ago.

Back then, I tried to recruit a bright young foreign policy specialist. “I don’t know, John”, he said: “everyone tells me nothing happens very fast in defence”.

That was five months before the fall of Kabul, then Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Western withdrawal from Mali and now fighting in Gaza.

When he became leader, Keir promised: “Never again will Labour go into an election again not trusted on national security”.

It’s a pledge we’ve pursued together since. Looking to set out for the public: our principles, our approach, and our plan for defence.

So ahead of the Government’s 2021 Integrated Review, I set out our core principles at RUSI – with unshakable Labour commitments to NATO, our nuclear deterrent, international law, and to building more in Britain.

After that, the global picture rapidly darkened. So ahead of the 2023 IR Refresh, I set out Labour’s approach to this new world of increasing danger and disorder.

NATO first. Rebuilding relationships with European allies. Developing Indo- Pacific partnerships. Standing with Ukraine for as long as it takes to win.

Then at Labour’s Conference last year, I began to lay out Labour’s plan for defence in government – with five strategic priorities to keep Britain safe.

Reinforce protections for the UK homeland, ensure UK NATO obligations are fulfilled in full, make allies our strategic strength, direct defence investment first to British jobs and British business, and renew the nation’s contract with those who serve, and the families who support them.

Today, I develop that plan by speaking about how I believe the MoD must change to meet the challenges of this more dangerous world, with a new era of UK defence. To deter threats, to defend the country, and to defeat any attacks.

European allies must take on greater responsibility for European security

Last month in his Lancaster House speech, the Defence Secretary said we are “moving from a post-war to a pre-war world.” This is deeply sobering.

At every level – civil society, the defence industry, the armed forces, Whitehall and Westminster – we need to take seriously what this might mean.

Over the next decade, we face Putin and an active alliance of aggression from autocrats who have contempt for international law and freely squander the lives of their own people.

And we face the reality that European allies must take on greater responsibility for European security, as the US increasingly focuses on China and the Indo Pacific.

This weekend marked two years since Putin’s brutal illegal invasion began. The Ukrainians are fighting with huge courage – civilians and military alike. They’ve regained half the territory taken by Putin and disabled his Black Sea fleet.

But Russia is far from a spent force, with its economy on a wartime footing and military spending now 30 per cent of its government budget.

That’s why Labour’s strongly backed the £2.5 billion military aid for 2024, as well as the new UK-Ukraine Security Cooperation Agreement.

And why Keir Starmer said to President Zelensky in Kyiv: there may be a change in government this year, but there will be no change in Britain’s resolve to stand with Ukraine, confront Russian aggression and pursue Putin for his war crimes.

What we do in UK defence sends signals to the world

The Defence Secretary, in his Lancaster House Speech, was right when he said: “For Ukraine, this will be a year when the fate of their nation may be decided.”

He was also right to argue that what we do in UK defence can send important signals to the world.

But what signal does it send to our adversaries when UK Armed Forces have been “hollowed out and underfunded” over the last 14 years, as Ben Wallace admitted to me in the Commons last year.

When the British Army has been cut to the smallest size since Napoleon. When Forces recruitment targets have been missed every year. When satisfaction with service life has fallen to record lows.

When the defence procurement system is condemned by the Public Accounts Committee as “broken and repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money”. Despite this, the MoD has huge strengths. It is good on operations; great in a crisis.

It played an outstanding role in the evacuation of Kabul, especially in contrast to the chaos in another department whose minister stayed on holiday.

But the MoD has not been good enough on strategic preparation and leadership. That’s why the Defence Select Committee last month found a lack of war-fighting readiness and strategic readiness.

And why two years on from the start of Putin’s invasion, we’re still scrambling to replace or resupply the arms we’ve sent to Ukraine, with the NAO now warning Ministers will use the £2 billion in the last Budget for stockpiles to plug current funding gaps.

Too much is being done in the old ways

We have excellent projects like Task Forces Kindred and Hirst to collaborate with Ukraine in the rapid development and manufacture of drones.

But for Britain, too much is still being done in the old ways, at the old speed through old systems not set up to secure capabilities in the round or integration of those capabilities across air, land, sea, space and cyber.

As the CDS said in his December lecture at RUSI: “Binding commitments and programmes together is even more than people or money. It’s about strategic literacy…about the need for modern institutions that are configured for the challenges of our time”.

This is a problem we must fix. Defence reform doesn’t make news headlines. But I have to tell you, I’m more interested in getting results than photo ops.

So today I want to make the case that some of our current arrangements in Defence must change to deal the state of the Forces and increasing threats.

For some, there’s become commonplace to cry “Reverse Levene”. Lord Levene’s remit in 2011 was to: ‘design a model for departmental management which is simpler and more cost-effective’. He sought to empower the Services to better align responsibility and accountability, and thus deliver better value for money.

Yes, he also envisaged a centre capable of exercising oversight, and this has not happened. But Levene was asked to solve a problem of administration. Not to answer the question of this age: ‘How will we fight?’ Then, what capabilities do we develop to deter and defeat those who threaten us.

I do not think the arrangements adopted then can deal with this challenge now. The time has come for change.

The MoD serves as both a conventional Department of State and a military strategic headquarters. It does policy, finance, strategy, planning and corporate governance, like any other department.

While its military arm has to generate credible, efficient armed forces and execute many types of complex operations, including maintaining our nuclear deterrent.

I listened carefully to General Sir Patrick Sanders’ speech last month. He said: “Ukraine has cruelly exposed a learnt imbalance in our strategic formulation”.

He also warned: “A lack of strategic means will ruthlessly undermine the ends we seek”.

We need to fix this. We need clearer strategic authority over the capability our armed forces must have and how it’s procured to make Britain better defended and fit to fight.

Labour plans major changes

We are already two months into election year. The Prime Minister has given the go-ahead to access talks.

So, as we prepare for a new era for defence, I am announcing today a major change we intend to make – if the British public back Labour to serve as their next government.

We seek to develop and draw on the best civilian and military minds to help ministers lead the department. We will establish a full-functioning Military Strategic Headquarters within the MoD.

It must meet the need to drive defence at the level of the department of state, with authority flowing from the Secretary of State through both the Permanent Secretary (PUS) and Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), down and across defence.

Our purpose is to create a stronger defence centre capable of leading Britain in meeting the increasing threats we must face.

We will restore the military readiness needed to deter and – if necessary – fight the conflicts this century now threatens. And we will do so in the most innovative and efficient ways, within necessarily tight fiscal constraints.

The current MSHQ is established and effective for managing current operations.

The new MSHQ must be more capable of strategic direction and decisions; including decisions about the balance of investment between the services and between capabilities … the people, training and support – not just equipment – that the Armed Forces need to fight.

To look strategically at the world. To develop effective defence strategy and war plans. To contribute to difficult resource decisions.

It will hold the services to account for delivery. It will drive the development of joint-by-design Forces. It will marshal all elements of the NATO standard model for a MSHQ. In this way, we will better align military authority and accountability.

The CDS is the UK’s most senior commander. He or she will have new authority and single Service chiefs will answer to the CDS.

The CDS and Service chiefs will have the prime role in advice on how best to fight and what capabilities should be available.

With the Permanent Secretary, the CDS will be central to balance of investment decisions, with money running through the authority of the CDS and Service chiefs held to account for the funding they have to deliver their part in a single ‘one defence’ mission.

And the CDS will be better supported by Strategic Command, which will exercise new authority on behalf of the CDS to direct and coordinate – rather than simply advocate – joint enabling activities.

Despite its name change from Joint Forces Command, StratComm is not the MSHQ I seek to establish. It is the sibling of the single Services.

It will be better able to carry out its role in delivering the UK’s ‘joint-by-design’ defence vision. The MoD will continue to be a heavyweight department of state, with:

The PUS as defence’s accounting officer – responsible for obtaining and delivering resources, over which Parliament requires scrutiny. The PUS responsible for defence developing policy and strategy advice to ministers.

But I want the MoD civil service to develop more policy muscle to be a stronger voice across government, in diplomacy, with industry and into civil society.

This requires the Permanent Secretary and Secretary of State to reset relations within Whitehall, especially with the Treasury and FCDO. I am determined to do this.

Britain’s defence needs strong and stable leadership

The Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force will continue as the strong, enduring Services the country is proud of and the world respects. To provide the frontline of our UK protections and decide how best to deliver their forces to keep the country safe.

Which leads me to announce a further reform. It’s always struck me that the role of the Service chiefs is certainly as complex and challenging as leading many departments of government.

Yet while Permanent Secretaries are appointed for five years, our top military leaders are appointed for just two, plus a sometime extra year. Britain’s defence needs strong and stable four-star leadership. So, I intend to change this by appointing service chiefs for four years, reviewed on performance after two.

With these reforms, we better align authority with accountability at our most senior military leadership level. For the avoidance of doubt, this new MSHQ is a must-make, week-one change.

It is not a potential outcome from the strategic defence review the next government will carry out in the first year. Whichever party is elected. It is a foundation for that strategic review; essential to conducting a successful review, arguably for the first time since George Robertson’s gold standard SDR in 1998.

Reforms are evolution, not revolution

The reform is an evolution, not a revolution. It completes the journey started in the 1960s to establish clear lines of authority and responsibility between the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces.

I have one further change we intend to make that I am announcing today. I won’t spend time rehearsing recent failings in the defence procurement system which the Public Accounts Committee describes as “broken and repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money”.

As RUSI reported in 2020 we’re getting: competition for resources between the services, with a focus on domain-specific equipment to the detriment of integration and international interoperability.

We have to secure better value for public money. And we also need a more strategic approach to procurement, looking to boost British industry, reinforce national resilience, strengthen our NATO leadership and exploit technology to raise the UK’s international standing.

Again, we need to meet the challenge of procuring and innovating at a pace that matches the increasing and diversifying threats.

We need to cut waste and duplication

So, we will create new strategic leadership in procurement. If Labour forms the next government, we will establish a fully-fledged National Armaments Director (NAD).

The NAD will be responsible to the strategic centre for ensuring we have the capabilities needed to execute the defence plans and operations demanded by the new era.

I envisage core delivery tasks that currently I don’t see vested anywhere in the system led with sufficient authority or accountability to carry them out effectively. This leadership includes:

Alignment of defence procurement across all five domains to cut waste and duplication. Securing NATO standardisation, collaboration with allies and driving export campaigns.

Delivering a new defence industrial strategy. He or she will be an important part of the corporate centre, sit in the Department of State and serve on the Defence Board.

DE&S will continue operate as the professional contracting authority to manage defence procurement and to provide the high-level commercial expertise required for larger programmes. It will focus on delivery and execution. Direction from NAD. Delivery from DE&S.

When we left office, we were spending 2.5% of GDP on defence

I recognise these changes require MoD advice on detailed arrangements but if Britain is to protect itself and prosper in a much more threatening world, then they simply must be made.

My speech today builds on Labour’s proud record on defence. When we left government in 2010, we were spending 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence.

The British Army had more than 100,000 full time troops. Satisfaction with service life over 60 per cent.

Labour will always spend what is required to defend the country, do what is required to keep our citizens safe, reform what is required to fix the serious problems.

The changes I set out today will mean a stronger strategic centre in Defence, to restore the military readiness needed for Britain to deter – and if necessary – fight the conflicts that threaten us.

New Military Strategic Headquarters (MSHQ). New military authority and accountability. New leadership for industrial success and procurement reform. New policy muscle, more influence for the MoD civil service.

The best of both policy and military minds to make Britain strong abroad, secure at home.

Defence will be central to growth, reconnecting us abroad and business-worker partnerships

Simply put, my vision is to make Defence not just central to the security of Britain but central to the country’s success in a new era.

Central to greater economic growth and prosperity across the UK, central to reconnecting Britain in the world, central to the new partnership for Britain between government, business and workers with their unions.

And central to greater pride and resilience at the heart of national security. Thank you.


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