This morning John Healey MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary gave a speech to RUSI on ‘Labour’s core principles on defence and security’. The content of the speech were released to the press last night in what appears to be an attempt to further distance the current Labour leadership from the previous one. It is important for us as disarmament campaigners (especially those within the Labour Party) to understand what the speech means and if it changes anything materially in terms of policy.
The core of the speech as briefed was four key points, the second and third are of the most interest to disarmament campaigners:
“Second, Labour’s support for the UK’s nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable. Third, Labour’s commitment to international law and the UN, to universal human rights and to the multilateral treaties and organisations that uphold them, is total”.
There is a clear contradiction within these two points. Late last month the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force, making nuclear weapons illegal under international law. The treaty was agreed by the vast majority of world states in 2017, a result of frustration at the failure of nuclear states to fulfil their obligations to disarm as laid out in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is worth noting that a poll carried out last month found majority support for the UK signing the Treaty – among Labour voters 83% were in favour a global nuclear ban, with 68% arguing for the UK to sign the UN ban treaty.
As the debate around disarmament has been so controversial within the Labour Party, agreed policy is very limited. At present the policy is that Labour will carry out a full defence review (including nuclear weapons) that will form the basis of future policy. This was agreed under Ed Milliband’s leadership in 2014 and passed through the party’s National Policy Forum and ratified at the Party conference that year. This has formed the basis for the agreed position laid out in the last three Labour manifestos and this policy is in no way changed by statements made to the press today.
Healey’s speech went on to ask a number of questions of the Government’s long delayed Integrated Defence Review:
- First, is there a clear foreign and security policy baseline built upon Britain’s national interests and multilateralism?
- Second, is there a full and forthright threat assessment?
- Third, are the planned capabilities and procurements based on a strategic realism?
- Fourth, is the budget sufficient and sustainable through to 2024 and beyond?
These are all valid questions to ask, particularly around the issue of Trident renewal. As a number of the Party’s most fervent nuclear supporters – from Tony Blair to (former NATO head) George Robertson – have acknowledged, decisions around trident are made on a purely political basis, entirely divorced from actual defence threats and security considerations.
On the final point around budget, the UK remains the 3rd highest spender in the world on weapons of mass destruction, with repeated delays and cost over runs at every stage of the trident procurement process. In November Boris Johnson announced a £16.5bn increase in the defence budget on top of increases already agreed the previous year these amount to a total increase of £24bn over the next three years. This eye-watering increase, unheard of since the cold-war, was warmly welcomed by Labour, with assertions today that it perhaps doesn’t go far enough. At a time of social and economic crisis these are costs we can ill afford.