Nato, Britain’s defences and the man who says Labour can keep us safe: JASON GROVES talks to Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey
- John Healey says the ‘first duty of any government is to keep the country safe’
Healey has one of the toughest jobs in politics – convincing Britain that after the chaos of the Jeremy Corbyn years, Labour can be trusted with the nation’s defences again.
The shadow defence secretary certainly talks a good game, saying the ‘first duty of any government is to keep the country safe’. He and Sir Keir Starmer have done their best to ensure there is not room for a cigarette paper between Labour and the Government on Ukraine.
The pair have also adopted a ‘Nato-first’ strategy that would see the current Government’s Indo-Pacific ’tilt’ reversed to focus on beefing up defences closer to home. In his speech at Labour’s conference next week, Mr Healey will go further by pledging to accelerate a £2billion programme to replenish stockpiles ammunition depleted by gifts to Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces.
Meeting in the Shadow Cabinet room at Westminster this week, Mr Healey says the Government was right to prioritise the issue in the March Budget, but adds: ‘It’s so far not spent a single penny, signed a single contract and not even done the internal preliminary step which is to give the Army, Navy and Air Force a sign of what share they’ll get.
‘So in government we would immediately apply a tried and tested system to cut the red tape, cut the delay and restock our Armed Forces.’
JASON GROVES talks to Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey (pictured)
In a newspaper article last month, Mr Healey and the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy claimed that Labour’s commitment to the Trident nuclear deterrent was ‘unshakeable’.
His aides are keen to point to polling showing the Tory lead on the issue has been slashed from 33 points in 2020 to just seven last month.
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But Rishi Sunak signalled this week that the Conservatives will target Labour on defence ahead of the election. ‘Not once, but twice, Labour tried to make a man prime minister who didn’t believe in Nato, who would have surrendered our nuclear deterrent and who blames Britain for every problem,’ he said.
‘Sir Keir Starmer might want us to forget about his repeated support for Jeremy Corbyn, but we never will. You can never trust Labour with our country’s security.’
Mr Healey points out that Sir Keir has focused on rebuilding Labour’s defence policy, vowing ‘Labour will never go into an election again not trusted on national security’. ‘I regard the Prime Minister’s remarks as frankly beneath his office – feeble, false,’ he says. Yet Mr Corbyn remains a sensitive topic.
Mr Healey served in his Shadow Cabinet for four years in the role of shadow housing secretary through both the 2017 and 2019 elections.
In May 2016, when the revolt against Mr Corbyn’s leadership was gathering pace, he urged Labour MPs to ‘unite behind Jeremy Corbyn as long as he’s leader’. He says that he and Sir Keir chose to stay in order to ‘ensure that broader base of mainstream Labour opinion was part of the leadership’.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow defence secretary John Healey walk through Tallinn, March 2022
And he points to the fact that a commitment to Trident remained in Labour’s manifestos throughout that period as evidence that he had some success – albeit that Mr Corbyn had rendered any deterrent pointless as he refused to say whether he would be willing to use it.
Did he actually want Mr Corbyn to become prime minister? ‘I wanted Labour in government,’ he says. ‘A Labour government would have been better than the chaos we’ve seen from the Conservatives over recent years.’
Mr Healey’s personal commitment to Trident is genuine. Labour would, he says, press ahead with a full four-boat replacement to enable the continuous at-sea deterrent to remain in place for decades.
But elsewhere in the Shadow Cabinet, the picture is not so clear. Mr Lammy, who declared his commitment ‘unshakeable’ last month, voted against Trident’s renewal as recently as 2016, as did five other current Shadow Cabinet ministers, including deputy leader Angela Rayner.
So what would Labour do differently? Mr Healey has promised an immediate defence review to switch Britain’s stance to a ‘Nato-first’ position. Attempts to boost our presence in the Indo-Pacific – such as sending the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea – would be scaled back, despite concerns about Beijing’s sabre-rattling.
He cannot say whether Labour would boost defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP, but points out it was 2.5 per cent when they left office in 2010 – higher than today. One area of no change is Ukraine, where he says the Government has his party’s ‘total support’.
Mr Healey is one of the few members of Sir Keir’s top team with real experience in government
Mr Healey is one of the few members of Sir Keir’s top team with real experience in government. Although he dislikes the term he is also a Red Wall survivor, holding on to his once South Yorkshire constituency of Wentworth and Dearne by just over 2,000 votes in 2019.
Repositioning Labour on defence after the disastrous Corbyn years is a key part of the strategy to win back patriotic Red Wall voters.
Mr Healey is cautious about saying the job has been completed. ‘There is a really strong sense of two things. One, nothing’s working now. And secondly, it’s time for change,’ he says.
‘But you don’t live in and serve in an area which had a 70 per cent Leave vote and not know that we still have a great deal more to do to convince people first, that it’s worth voting and the politics can make a difference, and second to convince people to place their confidence in us at the next election. There’s no complacency.’
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