UK defence spending: Labour or Conservative?

As the UK endures another General Election today, for the defence sector the question revolves around which main party would be better for the military and industry?

Looking at the party manifestos and recent statements on defence and security, there are some interesting similarities and comparisons.

Firstly, both Labour and Conservative have committed to keeping the nuclear deterrent, spending 2% of GDP on defence and keeping the military covenant. But comparing the defence sections of the manifestos there are some wider differences.

Conservative: Firstly, it is difficult to see what the party wants as it is bereft of details. However, they state they will ‘maintain the overall size of the armed forces’, which sounds good but this is misleading.

‘Overall’ includes reserve forces, so therefore this will allow for further cuts to full time service men and women even when they are understaffed already.

Secondly, the manifesto states a commitment to 2% of GDP on defence – a target they have already missed due to some sly accounting practices.

The commitment to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation per year and the £178 billion for equipment over ten years sounds attractive but meeting the budget depends on the ability to make savings of £5.8 billion, according the National Audit Office.

Thirdly, there is an intention to employ service men and women on a ‘flexible basis’, which also sounds good, but this means job cuts in full time equivalents in order to make more savings.

Fourthly, the manifesto states that ‘for the first time in a generation the Royal Navy is growing’, which anyone with an ounce of cognisance knows is an out-and-out lie. Under the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the number of frigates and destroyers has fallen to just 19 and the number of service personnel has fallen leaving a shortfall of somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000.

It does not even mention the Strategic Defence and Security Review held in 2015, which could mean an abandonment of commitments already made where they have tried to reverse the damage of the 2010 review.

Statements made by Theresa May on defence usually focus on reiterating support for the nuclear deterrent or Brexit, deflecting from the impact of cuts on conventional forces.

Labour: Labour’s manifesto has the defence section at the back as usual, but it actually says a bit more about what it aims to do in defence.

Aside from the commitments to Trident and 2% of GDP, Labour said it would ‘guarantee that our armed forces have the necessary capabilities to fulfil the full range of obligations and ensure our conventional forces are versatile and able to deploy in a range of roles’.

It raises concerns that army has shrunk to ‘its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars’ as well as arguing that the scrapping of Nimrod, HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier ‘have weakened UK defence’.

In addition, Jeremy Corbyn has recently in his Question Time debate said that he would ‘invest properly’ in the armed forces, making a commitment for more ships for the Royal Navy and aircraft for the RAF.

The manifesto goes on to highlight support for the ‘world-leading’ defence industry promising to ‘continue to support development and innovation’ with more procurement from British industry to provide jobs.

Labour said it will also publish a Defence Industrial Strategy and a National Shipbuilding Plan to ‘secure a long-term future for the industry workers and UK defence’.

In addition, the manifesto states service personnel will ‘get the pay and living conditions that their service merits’ and ‘immediately re-examine recruitment and retention policies in order to stem the exodus seen under the Conservatives’ as well as improve service accommodation.

Therefore, overall Labour has provided more detail about what it wants to achieve, given commitments to spending and investment in people and equipment as well as support for industry.

This directly contrasts with the Conservatives record since 2010 which has been abysmal, cutting expenditure when it needed to be held firm or even increased.

But despite the positive outlook from Labour, Corbyn’s personal anti-nuclear stance still gives the party a negative perception on defence.

There seems to be a long-held assumption in the defence sector from service men and women, and industry that somehow the Conservatives are better for defence. But this is misleading.

A quick look at defence spending from a high during the Korean War shows that the Conservatives have always cut the most during the Cold War and after it. Figures from the IFS show that at worst Labour made minor cuts of 1.5% during the late-1960s from 5.8% to 4.3%, maintaining it at existing levels the rest of the time.

Whilst in office the Conservatives raised it from 4.3% to 5% after the Falklands War but then halved it to 2.4% after the end of the Cold War, which was too much. Since 2010 they have pushed it to well below the official figure of 2% putting UK defence and security at risk.

Looking at the manifesto commitments and the historical record it seems that it is time for defence to put their trust in Labour.

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