3 June 2024

Are voters ready to trust Keir Starmer’s Labour on defence?


The Conservative Party has long been known as the ‘party of defence’, trusted by the public and the military alike to protect the UK’s national interests. But this election campaign, Labour is determined to change that. It is parking its tanks firmly on the Conservatives’ lawn as it seeks to show that in an increasingly turbulent world, the nation would be safer in Labour’s hands.

During a day focused on defence, while standing next to 14 ex-military Labour candidates, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer announced plans this morning for a so-called ‘nuclear deterrent triple lock’. The triple lock is designed to shore up the security of the UK, its neighbours and partners – particularly NATO – by ensuring the long term viability of the UK’s nuclear capabilities. The lock includes a commitment to construct four new nuclear submarines, maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent, and deliver all future upgrades needed for the submarines to patrol the waters.

The focus by Labour on nuclear is no accident. Investment in the UK’s nuclear deterrent is urgently needed – chronic underinvestment and ageing infrastructure have threatened to undermine the effectiveness of this key pillar of the UK’s defensive capabilities. But just as important to this focus on nuclear is Labour’s determination to remedy its own track record on the issue.

Keir Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was a big personal supporter of nuclear disarmament. This was a deeply-held belief for Corbyn – in 2016, while serving as Labour Leader, he voted against the renewal of Trident, even as most of his party voted for the renewal. And even while the 2017 Labour manifesto pledged to renew Trident, the strong focus on simultaneously pursuing multilateral nuclear disarmament, and Corbyn’s clear discomfort with the policy, left him ripe for attack during the election campaign. By focusing on nuclear, Keir Starmer is therefore seeking to put as much distance as possible between him and his predecessor on defence, echoed not least by his words this morning – ‘No longer the party of protest, Labour is the party of national security’.

In part, Labour’s decision to so visibly separate itself from its past on defence is a response to the current global environment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a sharp wake-up call across Europe, a realisation compounded by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and growing concerns about the risks posed by China. At a time of seemingly never-ending global crises, the UK’s defensive capabilities are the weakest they have been in years, and the need to invest in defence is clear.

But as much as it is about the global environment, Labour’s defensive positioning is also about electioneering. Even as the UK military has struggled in recent years, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s forthright support for Ukraine is viewed as a source of pride by the British public, who feel increasingly insecure in the current global environment.

It is no surprise then that when Labour committed to spending 2.5% of GDP on defence ‘as soon as resources allow’ before the election was announced, the Conservatives quickly outflanked them, adding a commitment to reach the target by 2030. The Conservatives’ plans for national service too are designed to show, particularly to undecided older voters, many of whom feel especially concerned about national security, that the Conservatives can still be trusted on defence, its traditional stomping ground. The Conservative party won’t want to give up its reputation for protecting national security easily.

Labour will therefore have to campaign hard if it is to convince undecided voters that it can be trusted more than the Conservatives on defence. This isn’t without risk. Increased focus will come with increased scrutiny and there will be difficult questions for Labour, not least over the fact that a number of current frontbenchers joined Corbyn in voting against renewing Trident in 2016. Starmer’s answer will no doubt be that he has changed the party. But the real question will be whether the public believe him. Either way, defence will no doubt continue to be a key battleground throughout the election.

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Evie Aspinall is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.