As promised, I have scanned the manifestos of the main parties (I will update this post when the Lib-Dems publish theirs tomorrow).
The two documents are similar and yet very different. Both make pledges about NATO and supporting the armed forces, but what was very noticeable was the difference in tone between the two.
The Labour manifesto included almost no new proposals. It spent its time basking in some questionable successes since 1997. TheConservative manifesto, by contrast, spent its time setting out some policy positions, and as I will note below, a notable suggestion. Of course part of this difference is accounted for because they are in very different positions – a government trying to defend a record and a mandate, and the pretenders to the crown. But even within this context, Labour’s defence manifesto is curiously without spark.
So, the two break down like this:
They pledge a Strategic Defence Review to make the armed forces ‘fit for 21st Century challenges’. They are distinct from the Conservatives in that they pledge to use the EU as a multiplier of influence. They also make a case for emphasising the stability and security of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Within their broad sweeps they claim that they have a ‘non-negotiable commitment to defence’, and similarly claim that they have increased defence spending by 10% since 1997 and that procurement has been a notable area of success (but the nature of the claim must mean they’re relying on UORs for this).
They pledge that they’re going to reform procurement, and reduce the numbers of civilian staff and the costs sunk into running head quarters. But the precise proposals haven’t been laid out.
There is a pledge to create, or to help to create a ‘European Peace Corps’ – and I couldn’t quite work out what the difference was between this and the Tory proposal to create a very soft version of national service.
The Tories have sought to link homeland security and defence more closely. They will create a National Security Council, with a National Security Advisor and a Team for Homeland Security. This would also include a Military Command unit that would help to work out how the military could contribute a ‘structured military’ response to homeland security.
The Conservatives would also have a strategic defence review (but including homeland security) and this would also be matched to foreign policy requirements – so the two parties are in agreement here. However, the Tories claim that they can reduce the MoD’s running costs by 25%, and have a system of procurement that runs to time and budget (are they going to buy off the shelf?).
The one eye-catching policy from either party is the pledge to release the spending on European defence initiatives and instead allocate it to UK forces. They also pledge to double the operational allowance and maximise rest and recuperation for the armed forces.
The foreign policy elements of the Tory manifesto are tucked neatly under the defence ones. The notable pledges here are the plan to foster a ‘special relationship’ with India, and to push for UN Security Council membership to be expanded to include Japan, India, Germany, Brazil and ‘Africa’ (although it’s not clear how ‘Africa’ selects its representative). If manifestos are about the future direction of a party (not just the immediate electoral horsetrade) it is clear that the Tories have an international agenda that runs much wider than the EU and is not limited (as the cliché would suggest) to the transatlantic alliance.
* LID DEM UPDATE*
The Lib-Dems have actually put forward a quite sensible, and well thought out manifesto. If I sound surprised, it’s because I am. And not only is it sensible, it’s distinctive too. They pledge to conduct the same sort of defence review as the other two – but to do so with two of the protected (ring-fenced) areas missing their fences, and their rings. They “(r)ule out the like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. At a cost of £100 billion over a lifetime it is unaffordable, and Britain’s security would be better served by alternatives. We support multilateral nuclear disarmament and will ensure that the UK plays a proactive role in the arms reduction talks starting later this year.” So that’s a hundred billion quid they’ve found straight off, and then they go on (not so much as a prune, rather a machete at the budget) by cancelling Eurofighter Tranche 3b – I’m not seeing many defence industry votes here… They do pledge to reinvigorate Franco-British cooperation (Saint Malo plus some might say… I never get cited on Saint Malo.. but I must have written just about the only bloody thing on it, aside from Jolyon’s piece..huff and move on) and they also are pledging large increases to service personnel salaries (bringing them into line with emergency service salaries) and massive improvements to service housing. Amusingly (so they’ve lost the defence industry vote and now the heavy shouldered vote) they’re going to strim out a layer of senior officers, and civilian MoD types…. They’ve pegged themselves to Europe (as always), but have done so in a way that I have advocated (but I’m not responsible for it, I promise) to reduce the unit cost of procurement by creating a larger demand pool, and therefore a larger supply pool across Europe. It is distinctive, very distinctive, and it’s very-pro the ordinary ‘tommy’ and their air-going and sea-faring brother. As far as I can tell from the newspaper coverage, it is yet to do them damage either.
Still within a non-partisan frame… the underlying premises of both manifestos are strikingly similar. The Tories have done a lot more work in thinking about theirs and the switch of European funding is an interesting proposal (other EU nations pull short on EU projects… the down-side is that it would degrade our position within the EU.. and is it possible for us to short-change as the pre-eminent military power in the EU?) and the plans to create special relationships with emerging powers is similarly encouraging. The Labour manifesto is disappointing for the paucity of new ideas within it, and the over-reliance on successes that I think are – at best- contested.
What is clear from both – however – is that defence is not considered a make or break issue for either party and that their attentions are elsewhere.
The introduction of the Lib-Dem manifesto to the party does introduce variety and distinctiveness. They have gone for a radical approach of not ring fencing any of the sacred cows, and instead focussing on the individual ‘tommy’. This shows, I think, that they believe we’ll be involved in peacekeeping operations for the foreseeable. There is, at least, some choice now across the main parties.