Labour and the Long Fight: How should the next Labour government support Ukraine?

As Labour prepares for government, the dynamics of the conflict in Ukraine revolve around four variables: who wins the US Presidential election; how much economic and material support Europe is prepared to offer; how much of its economic strength Russia can mobilise; and the continued self-sacrifice of the Ukrainian people.

Two years into the conflict Ukraine’s survival is substantially in the hands of its Western allies. The Ukrainian people’s will to fight is strong; but the physical supply of weapons, ammunition, intelligence, targeting and economic coercion is critically dependent on the West. 

That’s why Putin’s main point of attack is not Avdiivka – it’s Washington. That’s why we are seeing right-wing Republicans block Biden’s latest aid package, and Tucker Carlson fawning over Putin.

If Trump wins, end of story. And here the recent declarations by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss that the world “felt safer” when Trump was in the White House should cause us alarm. 

Up to now, Labour’s position has been to back the UK government, calling for faster aid and more pro-active sanctions. But the move by Truss and Johnson is a signal that, if Trump pulls the plug on support for Ukraine, and indeed the unity of NATO, there are voices within the Tory party who would push that project in Westminster.

So we need to be ready to respond.

Let’s be clear. Even though Russia is now mobilising its entire economy around the Ukraine war, in a way it did not do at the start, Ukraine can win. Victory comes when Russia loses the will to fight and the means to fight.

And it is possible because, although Russia’s economy is stronger than Ukraine’s, the economy of the West is an order of magnitude stronger than Russia’s. 

To win, Ukraine needs to survive through 2024, subjecting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to further attrition, degrading Russia’s energy infrastructure, and then challenging for air superiority, using the F-16s. It needs to modernise and re-equip its army, while the West tightens sanctions and becomes much more aggressive and overt in aiding the Ukrainain war effort with everything short of direct intervention.

So what can the Labour government do? What can we do better than the Tories? What might we have to do in the face of a Tory tie up with Farage?

First, we can make the case better to our own people that Ukraine is the front line of a conflict that we cannot escape from and which – if we don’t stop the aggression here – will engulf us. The Labour front bench has been exemplary – but I don’t think the whole party is putting argument front and centre in its dialogue with voters. 

In part that’s because most voters don’t realise the severity of the situation, and are concerned with the cost of living crisis and the NHS.

However I would, for example, like to see every candidate make a statement that they will vote for and advocate weapons, training and ammunition to Ukraine for as long as it takes to win.

Second, money. The UK is spending £2.3bn a year on arms to Ukraine. I would double it. That spending would create jobs, apprenticeships and growth here. At the same time we need to rearm the UK armed forces, and rebuild the defence industry to stand behind them, in partnership with key allies in Europe. 

For this reason I want to make the case that, if the Tories commit to 2.5% of GDP spent on defence in the coming Budget, Labour should see that as a floor, not a ceiling. In the 1930s, under Clement Attlee, Labour backed the idea of using debt to fund rearmament: then, as now, there was no chance of funding it from taxation and we should recognise this.

Third, we should aim for active bipartisanship with those Tories who genuinely support Ukraine. We’ve been completely frozen out of decision making on Ukraine by the government. The instinct is to return the compliment – but that would be wrong. There is a clear pro-Russian faction on the Tory right so we need to pull as many Tories as possible into a long term consensus, by involving them in cross-party efforts to support Ukraine.

Fourth, we need to make the UK/UA Security Agreement active across all parts of government. There’s a great MOD joint venture with the Ukrainians called Project Hirst – where we’re building drones and learning in real time from the battlefield. That’s good for them, good for the UK. 

But we can be interested in what the Tories aren’t: capacity building for democracy in Ukraine, supporting human rights, sending aid to the trade union movement, who are still fighting Zelensky’s government for union rights and over privatisation, and promoting social democracy inside Ukraine alongside our German colleagues. 

Finally, execute with conviction our policy of NATO First. Focus on security in Europe, on a security agreement with the EU, on partnerships with strong European Allies – so that if Trump does win and walk away, Keir Starmer’s Labour government can become the lynchpin of European support for Ukraine.


Paul Mason will be joining us at our event ‘Labour and the Long Fight: How should the next Labour government support Ukraine’ on February 28th at 7:00 PM, Committee Room One, House of Lords. Sign up to attend here.