Time for Labour to embrace her inner Ernie Bevin

It was an honour to chair the timely Progressive Britain event “Labour and the long fight: How should the next government support Ukraine?” with Ivanna Klumpush, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Luke Pollard, Shadow Defence Minister, Paul Mason, Journalist and Commentator, Jessica Toale, Co-chair of the Labour Foreign Policy Group and PPC and Mark Galeotti, Academic, Historian and RUSI fellow.  

As the meeting took place US aid for Ukraine was being blocked by the Trumpian Republicans. Moldova was mobilising its tiny army against a possible Russian invasion. Russia was advancing on the frontlines of Ukraine, which are the frontlines of the free world. And the UK was living in a period of phoney peace. We cannot seem to decide if we are in a pre-war Europe, or we are already at war with Russia? 

Free expression from the Labour Party front bench and candidates is necessarily suffocated by the ever-present electoral calculus for an opposition that has everything to lose by saying too much. Shadow Minister of Armed Forces, Luke Pollard, is genuinely behind Ukraine but is neither in power nor sure how many votes there are in tanks as opposed to butter. He made a powerful case for rearmament as industrial policy but could not commit to numbers. He needs to see the books and get the security briefings. For Luke this is pre-war Europe. Arming Ukraine through UK manufacturing and filling capability gaps in the hollowed-out defence of the UK will take time. Jessica Toale and Paul Mason, both Labour candidates, shared the commitment to stand by Ukraine but also held back on the specifics. Equivocation could have hung over our proceedings.

Everyone was on their best behaviour. 

The air of equivocation was blown away by Ivanna Klympush. 

She made clear, with dignity and feeling, that Ukraine does not have time to wait for being armed in the interests of UK industrial policy: “Democracies, through dither and delay, through the slow process of building consensus, are losing to autocracies…Maybe some of us will survive until the time decisions are made, others will be in the Gulag”. She movingly made a plea for UK leadership to deliver the support Ukraine needs now. 

In Opposition there are limits to what Labour can do, but if Labour comes to power, it has three options: George Lansbury: work only for peace. Stay with the Conservatives policy: do enough to ensure Ukraine is not defeated but not enough to help them win. Or embrace our inner Ernest Bevin: give Ukraine the tools to finish the job. 

No one at this meeting spoke for the pacifist tradition. Not a word was said against NATO.  Indeed Paul, himself a victim of Putin’s smearing machine, condemned those who swallowed the Russian disinformation lines on NATO encirclement.

Ivanna wants the tools. All agreed she should get them. 

Consensus means defeat if the Republic right in the US block spending and Trump is re-elected. So, while Mark asked the important question of what victory for Ukraine could mean, the focus of the discussion was on how to get to the point at which that debate became meaningful. 

Reflecting the fact that most people in the UK, except perhaps the good people of Salisbury, have not understood yet that Russia is at war with us even if we do not think we are war with them, none of the panel wanted to go full Bevin. 

Consensus Plus

These shackles of an opposition ahead in the polls seemed very heavy as Ivanna asked how much longer her 83-year-old father and young daughters would have to go to shelters. Mark did not believe the tanks would reach the borders of NATO and the EU if Russia won this war. Ivanna was sure that they would. Consensus + is not enough, but it is what was on offer so what does consensus + look like?

The UK has been generous in its support but is not the leading the member of the JEF alliance in terms of proportion of GDP spent on AID to Ukraine. It does beat Iceland a country without an army and Sweden a new NATO member whose defence spending is rising. UK has given 0.55 %of GDP since full scale invasion. Estonia has given 3.55%. Estonia borders Russia, they will see the tanks if Ukraine falls. The other Nordics and Baltic states and Holland have given a higher proportion of their GDP than the UK. Labour panellists agreed there would be more but could not say how much.

The UK has given weapons but not enough long-range missiles. Denmark recently announced it was giving all its artillery to Ukraine. Mark dismissed this “dozen pieces” and praised what UK had already given. He questioned if more long-range missiles, needed to disrupt supply lines in a war that was about economics as much as tactics, would be forthcoming. It was unclear how much more Labour would give, despite an audience member having a long list of what could be given.

Rushi Sunak supports giving the interest on frozen Russian assets to Ukraine but the G7 has ruled out handing over all the frozen assets. The only thing that can change that now is a declaration of war. Are we agreeing with Tucker Carson that you would have to be an idiot to think Russia is expansionist and aggressive. There are a lot of idiots then in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Salisbury. Jessica, a Councillor in Mayfair, strongly supported more and smarter sanctions and more and deeper revelations about Russian money in the UK. The shackles loosen a little. Labour could and would do more, but no one supported declaring war to make it happen.

The UK has trained 10,000 Ukrainian troops in the UK. It could be training hundreds of thousands in Ukraine, and we could be embedding military advisers at every level of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Frontline commanders in Ukraine have asked for this. And why train for combined operations which need air cover before you provide aircover. None of the Labour speakers commented on this possibility. It is not part of the +.

Arming Ukraine as UK industrial policy clashes most clearly with the need to fill the Trump sized vacuum that is here now with more likely coming. This is most obvious on the question of funding the rapidly developing Miltech sector in Ukraine directly. The UK government has announced £200m to supply UK drones to Ukraine. Removing conditionality and putting the £200m into Ukrainian made drones by Ukrainian companies which are cheaper and often better was not a popular idea with an Opposition that has to deliver jobs and growth.

Ivanna urged Britain to take the lead in supporting Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, highlighting the gratitude of Ukrainians for the support received from Western allies thus far. However, she noted the disparity between the fully mobilized Russian economy and the piecemeal contributions from the West, arguing that the cost of inaction far outweighs the current expenditures, with stakes extending beyond Ukraine to the whole of Europe. Consensus + includes much greater support for Ukraine in terms of NATO membership.

The real meat of Labour’s “consensus-plus” strategy was on sanctions and scrutiny. This means not only agreeing on sanctions but also on accelerating their implementation and enhancing the scrutiny and accountability of their implementation to date and the support to Ukraine that has been delivered to date. Jessica pushed hard on extending and making sanctions smarter. Luke made a firm commitment to overhaul defense procurement. £5 billion, he said, was wasted in 2023 alone. The hope is that this serves as a wake-up call to the defense industry. If filling the gaps in UK defence is part of an industrial policy then there must be a shift towards a more agile, responsive, and innovative military technology sector under Labour, inspired in part by what Ukraine is itself doing and based on what Luke called a drum beat of regular orders to ensure critical production capacity is maintained.

Ivanna was grateful to the UK for everything that has been given so far but she left wanting more. Consensus + is not, in my opinion, enough. We need Ernie.

The plan

A consensus busting Bevin plan for an incoming Labour government would have six points. 

  1. Take the UK to the top of JEF states for GDP given to Ukraine. 
  2. Provide all the long-range weapons Ukraine needs. 
  3. Make the legal changes to allow Ukraine access to frozen Russian assets now and extend oil and gas sanctions. 
  4. Embed UK military at every level of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 
  5. Invest heavily and now in the Ukraine Miltech sector. 
  6. Force immediate membership of NATO for Ukraine on a wartime timetable. 

 

If you enjoyed this piece, see Labour and the Long Fight: How should the next Labour government support Ukraine? by Paul Mason.