Jim Murphy: 'Unions must not block ex-forces MPs in Labour's ranks'

Party's defence spokesman demands selection overhaul to address 'emotional disconnect' between party and military
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The Independent Online

Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are to be recruited as Labour candidates at the next election under plans to address the party's "glaring gap" of military experience in the Commons.

Jim Murphy, the party's defence spokesman, said union influence over the selection of candidates in winnable seats is to be curtailed to "create a space" for former members of the armed forces. After 13 years in power – which saw military intervention Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Kosovo – there is "an emotional disconnect" between the Labour Party and the services, he said.

The intensity of military deployments, at times in the face of public opposition, had damaged the relationship between the two sides, he said, but insisted there is "no good reason" for the Tories to have "dozens" of MPs with military experience while Labour has only one, Falkirk's Eric Joyce.

He blamed the "nomadic" nature of life in the forces and the ban on its members joining unions for the lack of MPs with a military background within Labour. "I want to see a lot more candidates in winnable seats who have experience of being in the armed forces. It just brings something better and bigger to Parliament and to the Labour Party."

He dismissed the "stupid political analysis" that the Labour Party would look after the NHS while the Tories looked after the Army. "All Conservatives are patriots, but all patriots are not Conservatives." He noted how in the US "the military is an intrinsic part of the DNA of the nation" in a way it is not in Britain, and certainly not in the Labour Party.

In his first major interview since being appointed to the role, Murphy reveals that David Miliband had guaranteed him the defence brief in reward for his role as his leadership campaign manager, and that he was surprised when his brother, Ed, offered him the post after his September victory.

Murphy is "determined" Labour should overhaul the way its candidates are selected, while also using the space created by its policy review to develop a "deeper understanding of Islamic-inspired violence" which, he said, will continue to threaten Britain "for the rest of my life and my kids' lives".

"We know there isn't a military solution in Afghanistan," he said. By the time British troops withdraw there will have to have been a reconciliation between the Taliban and the democratically elected Afghan government. "But to have a sense of that reconciliation, you have to have a better understanding in terms of what is going to happen next in Afghanistan or elsewhere."

The 43-year-old Glaswegian said his only experience of the armed forces came as a schoolboy in South Africa, where he emigrated with his parents when he was 12. Conscription was still in place for white teenagers, but he refused. "It just wasn't my role to serve in the South African army."

He claimed "some serious mistakes are being made with the defence of the nation in the name of deficit reduction" by the coalition, which unveiled an 8 per cent cut over four years. The defence and security review "only scratched the surface" of the analysis needed of future threats, he added. He also held out the hope that the Government's order of aircraft "carriers without Harriers" could be reversed. However, he warned against Labour opposing everything as "an unthinking battering ram against the Government". "On defence, it is cheap and nasty to be opportunist for the sake of it," he said.

Murphy called Labour's 29 per cent share of the vote in May "pretty garbage", saying it had left the party "on the cusp of catastrophe". While Gordon Brown's government "captured the logic of the moment" and the need to rescue the economy, it was "silent on the emotion of the moment: the worry the fear, the hope". In the election, Labour was not forward-looking enough, he added.