I thought I would share my letter to colleagues for the shadow cabinet elections, with you.
I know you’re getting bombarded with these, but I want to ask for your support in the Shadow Cabinet elections. Let me explain why.
These elections are generally cast as a chance for us to choose a decent bunch from amongst our number to help lead the fightback and to lay the foundations for our return to government. And while some of our very able colleagues have chosen not to stand this time, there are lots of good people to pick from. But it seems to me that these elections should be about more than a strange beauty contest. They should also be about the policy directions we go in now. So I’m asking for your vote on the basis of where I think we should go now quite specifically in the field of Foreign and Defence policy. Elections aren’t usually won here, but they can be lost. The Tories are already getting their ducks in a row on number of key issues, like Afghanistan drawdown, for the next election. So it’s crucial that we start working on our own coherent new plan which fits the way the world is now.
Consider this: the Tories have almost concluded their pseudo-Strategic Defence Review. It’s naturally heavily influenced by foreign policy imperatives but it’s dominated by the cuts to come. Nevertheless, David Cameron’s made it clear that he expects our fighting forces to be out of Afghanistan by the next election. Our position, on the other hand, remains; “we’ll stay ‘til the job is done”. In view of President Obama’s commitment to downscaling the US presence there from next year, there’s a danger this will come to make us look more conservative than the Tories. And it’ll be out of step with public opinion. It surely has to change.
At the CSR statement on October 20th, the Tories are almost certain to announce a delay in the Trident renewal programme. A theoretical pillar of their justification for this will be a likely relaxation of the Continuous-at-Sea deterrence principle. As things stand, our position will be that they’re threatening both our security and our relationship with the United States. Again, this proposition simply won’t wash with the public. People can see cuts have to be made and they’re increasingly sceptical about Trident renewal. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily against it; but they definitely want politicians to justify the costs as rigorously as any other area of expenditure. So without change, we’ll be in the wrong place there too.
The Tories’ ‘Review’, including some value-for-money analysis of Trident renewal, isn’t much more than a quick cost-cutting job but it does mean they’ll be able to provide some reasoned arguments for where their cuts will fall. With procurement in particular, Defence Secretary Liam Fox will make it clear that even a slowed-down Trident renewal programme will mean job losses elsewhere in our industrial base. Without our own review we’ll be unable to take much more than un-aimed potshots with pretty thin justifications. There’s a distinct danger that our inability to put joined-up arguments will marginalise us in the eyes of the public and lessen our political effectiveness.
Looking out elsewhere in the world, our Labour values still seem in too little evidence. In Colombia, 25000 people lay buried in unmarked graves and trades unionists, like Liliany Obano who I’ve visited in prison, continue to be victimised today. The UK Trades Union movement has made this a central pillar of their campaigning through ‘Justice for Colombia’ and as a Party we need to take much more notice. In Eastern Congo, where I am this week, 500 women in and near a village called Luvungi were systematically raped last month while UN Forces were only a few miles away. The Eastern Congo is a chronic crisis which has seen 6 million people die over 15 years, with gender-based violence endemic. But while Labour has an honourable aid record there, we can do much more if we accept that it isn’t just strategically relevant places which ought to get our serious foreign policy attention.
The reason we’re struggling on foreign policy and defence is that we’re afraid. As a Party, we think that if we take a long, hard look at our priorities in the world the public will think we’ve gone back in time. The Tories have no such fears. Yet when we last carried out a systematic review, in 1998, it actually consolidated public trust in us. We desperately need to leave our fear behind us now and chart a new course. That doesn’t mean disrespecting the United States, but it does mean working out how we can partner better with our European allies. It also means stressing the role not of large-scale physical intervention, now a thing of the past, but of political and diplomatic solutions.
In recent times, the UK has chosen, and it is always a choice, to deploy our Defence capability as a means of staying at ‘the top table’. Other countries, like Germany, have chosen other ways. We’ve done some good things, in the Balkans and Sierra Leone, but the aftermath in Iraq was terrible precisely because we followed the US line too closely. The latest dodgy elections in Afghanistan, coupled with the complete lack of political movement there, present an increasing risk for us if we continue to allow our position to be dominated by the US electoral cycle. We need to think for ourselves.
It’s time now for Labour to respect the opinions of the British public and our own members, conduct a proper foreign policy and defence review of our own and chart a course for the UK which, while realistic, is truly progressive. A course which responds not to the way the world was a generation ago, but the way it is now.
I hope you’ll consider voting for a new tone for Labour in foreign policy and Defence. It’ll be up to our new leader to decide on portfolios in the shadow cabinet, but a good showing from me will be hard to ignore one way or the other.
And thanks for your time here; this has been a pretty long letter!
With best wishes