Manifesto Check: Labour leaves the door open to downscale Trident

Labour’s defence policy might sound good, but it’s mainly empty rhetoric. Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive

The most noticeable aspect of the defence and the armed forces section of Labour’s manifesto is its brevity, especially given the current level of instability in the international environment. The section is overwhelmingly rhetorical, and there is hardly any mention of real policy – bar a few exceptions.

Labour indicates a desire to balance fiscal responsibility with a strong defence strategy for the UK; but this is a fraught task. The renewal of Trident is a cornerstone issue within the wider debate on defence spending. The SNP has already opposed the move, claiming that it would cost £100 billion, which could be better spent.

Trident itself is a system of four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines, which allows one sub to be on patrol at any given moment, providing what’s known as a continuous at-sea deterrent (CASD). The manifesto clearly states that “Labour remains committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent”. But a commitment to four submarines is not specifically stated. So, one must assume that Labour is at least willing to explore the idea of a CASD with a downsized submarine force.

The document also mentions that Labour “will conduct a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in the first year of government” that will be “fiscally responsible” and “strategically driven”. But historically, achieving both of these aims in one SDSR has proven quite problematic.

My own discussions with both defence analysts and Ministry of Defence officials suggest that most defence and security experts understood the 1998 SDSR – undertaken by the last Labour government – to be strategy-led, rather than treasury-driven. The opposite was true with the 2010 SDSR under the coalition government. It remains to be seen whether the next SDSR will be closer to the 2010 iteration or to the previous Labour 1998 review. But the wording here clearly signals a desire to balance both strategy and finance.

The 2%

There is no mention of the commitment the UK made to sustain defence spending at 2% of gross domestic product. At the NATO Wales Summit, the UK agreed that:

Allies currently meeting the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence will aim to continue to do so. Likewise, Allies spending more than 20% of their defence budgets on major equipment, including related Research & Development, will continue to do so.

Although an SDSR conducted after the election – along with a 2015 Spending Review – may ultimately reaffirm the UK’s commitment to maintaining defence spending at 2% of GDP, this does not seem likely. A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has presented four possible scenarios for UK defence spending up until 2020. All but one of these scenarios see defence spending falling below the 2% mark.

The manifesto also states that the “UK defence and security industry is a key contributor to our economy, with a turnover of £22 billion a year.” The Defence Growth Partnership report released last December concurs with this figure. Yet, it is glaringly obvious that any centrist government would “work to secure defence jobs across the UK, protect the supply chain and support industry.” This sweeping collection of buzz words offers no real insight into how the Labour party aims to achieve its ambitions.

Given that the UK has been involved in conflict for more than a decade, it is appropriate that the service of our military personnel should be supported through tangible actions. The Labour manifesto commits to strengthening “the covenant between our nation and our Armed Forces”. This is commendable, but there is little in the way of stated policy to achieve this. “A Veterans’ Register” is mentioned, but it is quite unclear how such a register will ensure our veterans receive the attention they warrant, or even what is meant by “proper support”. This section of the manifesto is highly rhetorical, and lacks any real policy substance.

These days, there is no doubt that cyber-security is a fundamental aspect of national (and collective) defence and security. It is commendable that the manifesto addresses such threats, but again this section is quite lacking when it comes to substantial policy proposals. For example, it is less than clear how merely signing up to “a cyber-security charter” reduces risk in this respect.

The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.