Labour is dangerously becalmed on defence and foreign affairs. So many issues afire in the media, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, trident, defence on wikileaks, and amazingly the government’s strategic defence review are going wholly unremarked upon by the opposition.
Our leadership race has so far failed to test the candidates on defence and foreign affairs, while shadow ministers have in their hands the outgoing baggage of policies followed through in government. Yet the root of our problems is not the need for a rest or a simple change of personnel. It is political stasis borne of fear and ignorance of defence.
Governments generally stand or fall on the perceived strength of their economic management, but it’s a pre-requisite for any putative party of government that it is trusted on defence. Labour orthodoxy has it that the electoral disaster of early 1980s was heavily contributed to by our courting of CND (of which Tony Blair was once a member), which was a long way off the broader public opinion during the cold war. It’s been an article of faith since then that we must at least neutralise defence as a problem by adopting a conservative approach to all defence-related issues. Our strict, pro-nuclear line has been the primary symbol of that.
During Tony Blair’s premiership, George Robertson’s strategic defence review, followed by UK interventions in the Balkans and Sierra Leone, helped to solidify public confidence in Labour. That we were now ‘sound’ on defence tucked away what would otherwise have been some lingering establishment doubts about the whole novel enterprise of an enduring Labour government.
Fast-forward to today. Electorally, Iraq damaged Labour badly; mainly amongst our own natural supporters sceptical of our deep and seemingly unquestioning subordination to the US defense department. The British establishment pretty much stayed on board. Over the last half-dozen years, Labour’s leadership has sought to bridge a chasm between the instincts of our political supporters and those of the establishment.
But for at least a year, something very new has been afoot, and it is paradigm-busting. Mainstream Labour opinion and received establishment instincts on trident, Afghanistan and many of the key defence and foreign affairs issues of the day are converging, perhaps for the first time since 1945.
Faced with the obvious fiction of an ‘independent’ trident as a meaningful post-cold war strategic weapon, and against a backdrop of brutal cuts the length and breadth of government, the establishment is demanding that trident be recognised and justified or otherwise for what it really is – a geopolitical lever. The Tories understand, and this is at the heart of defence secretary Liam Fox’s fight with the treasury over the capital costs of trident replacement. Labour on the other hand remains wedded to an outmoded and discredited ‘insurance policy’ argument which no-one takes seriously per se. It is a short step from there to not being taken seriously on defence at all.
These economic pressures have combined with growing public alarm over Britain’s exposure in Afghanistan to make a long-term fighting presence there politically impossible. In the run-up to the election, Labour’s misplaced and unwelcome fear of the generals forced us to ignore public opinion on Afghanistan. We insisted our troops would ‘be there for as long as it takes’. As soon as the election was over the new Tory administration, historically unencumbered by any concern about losing public confidence on defence, immediately did what we’d lacked the courage to do and made it clear we’ll be out of Afghanistan by 2014.
On defence and foreign affairs, Labour has become more conservative than the Tories. Yet while this might have helped us a generation ago, today the nature of the political battle has changed and we are making the classic mistake of employing outmoded first principles.
Right now, in a straight fight fought on current rules, we are falling a long way short of matching the Tories on Defence. We can provide competent political managers, but so can they. But they can also back that up with great depth of knowledge and experience amongst their parliamentary party. They are profoundly respectful of, but manifestly not afraid of, senior officers. In the last year of government, we got that wrong and the public knew it. We cannot out-Tory the Tories on defence.
Yet if we have the courage and political wisdom to do the right thing now, we have a diamond opportunity to turn this weakness into strength. What Britain needs on Defence, and indeed on foreign affairs more broadly, is a paradigm shift and it is only Labour who can lead it.
The British public, Labour supporters and the conventional establishment are deeply sceptical about trident replacement going through on the nod. And they’re determined to win a realistic political settlement on Afghanistan in fairly short order. Crucially, underpinning this is a growing sense that our unquestioning obedience to the United States line on all things foreign (which for the US, by the way, includes us), is failing to win us the same degree of influence as some of our European allies. The streets of mainland Europe are as safe from ‘international terror’ as ours yet their leaders also listen carefully to public opinion and negotiate accordingly with a US which respects them all the more for it. It is time we did the same.
The Tories are now of course constrained by many of the same variables as we were when in government. So Labour is now in a position to take the initiative, not by being on fearful and conservative but by being fearless and radical; by shifting the axis of debate and forming a new paradigm.
We must do two things immediately. First, we must convene our own defence review; one which includes trident replacement without prejudging the outcome. We should listen carefully to trades union voices, including those who urge intelligent change in our relationships with countries like Columbia, to new members who were formerly Liberal Democrats, to the many long term supporters we’ve been ignoring for years.
Second, we must demand that rather than simply talk about political solutions in Afghanistan but in truth make no headway at all, we assert our will with the United States. We must insist that the price for our disproportionate commitment in Afghanistan is meaningful progress on political reform in Kandahar and Helmand and a drawdown of the British commitment there beginning next year. At present, for example, the brother of President Karzai continues to run Kandahar while allegedly profiting from the drug trade and colluding with attacks which kill our troops.
The failure to achieve any meaningful political movement there now is symptomatic of the fact that the United States’ electoral cycle is dictating that President Karzai should become the West’s Najibullah; a puppet of outside powers doomed to failure. We should have the courage to insist on better and it will be Labour’s moral failing if we do not.
There will be much more to do. But for now, Labour’s leadership candidates must be challenged on their respective visions for Britain’s place in the world. A vision characterised by fear and ignorance will not cut it for Labour or Britain; one defined by its courage, honesty and imagination will. There are plenty of hustings to come, so let’s get going.
Eric Joyce is Labour MP for Falkirk.