Corbyn has a security strategy that speaks to the electorate – but Labour won't win the election on defence

The Labour proposal to create a “Minister of Peace” is a harmless indulgence, but the realisation that issues such as climate change and water shortages will create fresh conflicts also shows a sharp awareness of the dangers to the UK’s security in the modern world

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The Independent Online

“Soft on defence” is the usual Tory jibe about Labour, with or without some menacing overtones about lack of patriotism, and has been deployed for roughly a century. More than most, Jeremy Corbyn has had to put up with it during his long political career, one where his perfectly principled and laudable devotion to peace and “political solutions” has sometimes led him down some dark and dangerous alleys with nasty people. Given that, and given that he obviously would never use nuclear weapons, whatever circumlocutions he may come up with to avoid admitting as much, he has crafted a surprisingly good defence for himself on the issue.

So this is not (quite) 1983 all over again. Labour’s policy is not unilateralism, as it was (albeit in confused form) back then. Labour remains committed to Trident, while pledging to negotiate it away. Mr Corbyn and his party are much more firmly committed to Nato, and the public spending that goes with it, than the Labour Party of the 1980s was, with some of its more unworldly members then, quite possibly including the current leader, inclined towards Swedish-style neutrality between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, or even to take leadership of the developing world’s Non-Aligned Movement. Not so now.

Indeed, Mr Corbyn and his team are vocal in speaking up for the squaddies, for their pay and rations and highlighting the way that they’ve sometimes been failed by successive governments on pensions, shoddy accommodation and poor equipment. Many in the armed forces, at all ranks, would appreciate the concern that Mr Corbyn plainly and sincerely feels for their welfare. The Conservatives’ record on defence and their treatment of our brave armed forces has not always lived up to the red-white-and-blue rhetoric.

Nor is Mr Corbyn a pacifist, any more than his predecessor Michael Foot was (and Mr Foot’s support for the Falklands War is usually forgotten). As he says, for him armed force is a last resort, and it should be undertaken under international law. Who could argue with that? Nevertheless, when invited by the BBC Today programme to agree that war is a last resort the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, was churlish enough to dodge the question. Mr Corbyn is badly out of step, though, on targeting terrorist leaders of organisations that are in a state of war with Britain. He seems confused between, on the one hand, the plainly justified killing of Osama bin Laden and, on the other, those tragi-comic efforts by the CIA to kill off Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar. It is not always going to be possible to arrest and place on trial the leaders of Isis or the Taliban.

The Labour proposal to create a “Minister of Peace” is a harmless indulgence, but the realisation that issues such as climate change and water shortages will create fresh conflicts also shows a sharp awareness of the dangers to the UK’s security in the modern world.

We know, then, that Mr Corbyn would go to war, though under the most stringent conditions. That is the right approach. It is wrong to be motivated solely by loyalty to the United States. “No more hand-holding” with the US was an evocative and memorable way to make the point that British lives should never be sacrificed for the sake of buying influence with the world’s superpower. The public’s view is broadly the same. Unlike in 1983, the British people are war-weary, and have seen too many of their service people return from ill-fated campaigns mutilated, or not at all. The war on Iraq has changed many minds about war, as it should have done. If Mr Corbyn is a bit of a peacenik, than he is in solid and sizeable company in the wider electorate.

All that said, Labour was never going to win this election, or any other, on defence; but it was not going to lose it on defence either. As the pollsters say, the issue has less “salience” than before, and the voters are preoccupied with the biggest single foreign policy challenge we face – Brexit. The shame of it is that Mr Corbyn has managed to find himself a defence policy that makes reasonable sense; but in the more perilous waters of Brussels he finds himself quite defenceless. 

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