This interesting BBC News article outlines some of the positions Labour Leader Kier Starmer intends to take during the forthcoming Labour Party conference. One Labour insider summarises these values as “Flag, forces, family”. Such phrasing appears to be a development of chief Ed Miliband theorist Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour motto of “Faith, family and flag”.
While the faith aspect of Glasman’s formulation always seemed a little off key in the UK, one of the most secular countries in the world, its replacement with “forces” seems more apposite. Research undertaken by Reifler, Scotto and Clarke (2011) shows that British voters show a preference for political parties whose policies align more closely with an outlook Reifler et al call ‘British militarism’, e.g. support for military spending, combatting terrorism and peacekeeping (p.253).
Interestingly, the BBC article mentions that much of what it imagines will be a renewed focus on patriotism comes from the work of Starmer’s director of policy Claire Ainsley, former head of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and author of the book The New Working Class, although from a quick look through the contents and index pages it does not seem to mention defence issues.
Nevertheless, it is clear that defence has long been a deep weakness for the Labour Party. In the 1980s Thatcher was able to castigate Labour for its support for unilateral nuclear disarmament (Gould, 1998, p.51). Blair’s interventionist foreign policy and his support for the invasion of Iraq may have been in part an overcompensation for this legacy, yet for all this effort, during the entire period of New Labour’s term of office from 1997–2010 there were only a few short months at the end of the Kosovo war in 1999 when Labour were more trusted on defence issues than the Conservatives. More recently, Corbyn was at his most vulnerable when addressing defence issues; his stance on Trident renewal being one such example. This Question Time clip is a classic example of Corbyn on the ropes when questioned over the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
The British public like parties who support the British armed forces. Labour’s eternal dilemma is how, as a Party based in part upon the principle of internationalism (Vickers, 2003, p.5), can Labour square the circle of appearing strong on defence in order to attract voters without losing its soul to warmongery.