The conference season marks autumn for many, and what an incredible summer we had. We all have our favourite moment from the summer of sport and London 2012, but I want to start by thanking a group who performed brilliantly this summer.
Some of them with the dust of Afghanistan still in their boots. Men and women with a quiet humility and a pride in their country. We should thank the 17,000 members of the UK Armed Forces who served so that in safety the athletes could compete and we could celebrate.
This year our country has lost 39 service personnel in Afghanistan.
Today there remain almost 10,000 of our service personnel in Afghanistan. Each of them and their families should be in our thoughts. Their efforts are about the Afghan people having the lives and livelihoods they deserve – free from the tyranny of the Taliban, part of a global economy, and a country at peace with its neighbours.
But a distant warning bell should ring ever more loudly with each passing month where there isn’t a political process to match the military might of the past decade. That must be our focus, and we look forward to the day when we can welcome the last of our Forces home as heroes.
Afghanistan remains the UK’s defence priority in a world of profound uncertainty, where unstable states outnumber stable countries two to one.
What has been the Government’s response?
A defence posture without a strategy.
Service personnel sacked just days before collecting their pension.
And who could forget the aircraft carrier chaos?
Only this Government would build two carriers, mothball one, sell our Harrier fleet and have no planes to fly off a carrier for almost a decade.
At each election the Conservatives stand on a platform of ‘government doesn’t work’. Judging by their actions they seem hell-bent on proving their claim.
And what will we hear from them next week? No doubt we will get the same old blame game. But it won’t work because let’s be clear: two-and-a-half years into their Government and in the absence of a defence strategy it just isn’t good enough having a catch-all slogan of “it’s not my fault”.
And what of the Lib Dems? I remember a Lib Dem MP complaining to me at the last election that they couldn’t get votes because the public didn’t know what they stood for. Well say what you want about the Lib Dems but that’s certainly one achievement in Government – never again will they ever lose votes because people don’t know what they stand for: it’s any power over all principle.
As for the SNP, they want to debate how many questions there will be in the referendum because they can’t decide on many of the answers about independence. It’s time for them to come clean about their plans because when it comes to defence, separation is a powerful idea from the 19th century ill-suited to the 21st century.
What does this mean for Labour? We face an enormous challenge from a Tory Party that is born to rule and the Lib Dems determined not to die.
The task for Labour is not just relentless attack – it’s responsible answers.
In opposition we must deal with the issues we would if we were in power.
That is why the Shadow Defence team have been clear about the need for defence savings.
And that is why with a future Labour Government defence spending will be subject to independent expert review. We will account for and justify our spending decisions. No smoke and mirrors, no delay in tough decisions, and a culture of consequence. A defence budget policy alongside a defence industrial strategy that celebrates and supports the 300,000 British workers who do so much to contribute to the defence of our nation.
But while politics is about highlighting differences it is also about making a difference, and while we are out of office we are not without power.
That is why we started a national campaign to end discrimination against our Armed Forces, to strengthen the Covenant and to support veterans’ carers.
Our country is brilliant at turning civilians into soldiers, but we are not good enough when the time comes to turning soldiers back into civilians. Finding work is so important and that’s why we launched the Veterans’ Interview Programme. All answers don’t come from the inside of a Ministerial red box – they can come from our instincts and our values and that’s why I’m delighted that Labour in opposition has signed up some of the biggest companies in the country to guarantee job interviews to unemployed veterans. It is simply wrong for anyone who has served in Afghanistan and comes back to a public parade and heroes’ welcome to be sacked by their Government almost immediately and then be expected to simply join the back of the queue at the local Jobcentre. It’s unfair and it’s wrong. It shouldn’t happen and under the next Labour Government it won’t.
But our task it not just about developing policy, it’s also about changing our Party.
At last year’s conference we agreed the creation of Labour Friends of the Forces, a group to campaign to strengthen the bond between our Party and the Forces.
Then, four patrons joined me on stage. Today I can announce that we now have almost 700 members.
And you’ll remember that together we agreed that we would be the only Party ever to offer a £1 membership for serving and former members of our Armed Forces. I’m delighted to confirm that a fantastic 406 current or former Forces have joined the Labour Party this year.
More than 1,000 new military members and supporters but that’s still not enough. Our commitment to the service community has always been core to our values – now we want it to be part of our Party’s DNA.
Today I can announce that the Labour Party is the first and only party to ensure that our procedures are now in line with the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant. The sacrifice of service will not be a barrier to clear but a badge to be honoured in our movement and no Labour Party member will be disadvantaged as a result of service in the Armed Forces.
Conference, we do all of this because we are idealists. We believe in the utility of service.
Ours is a patriotism that pre-dates the Olympics.
We believe in solidarity with those who have served our country.
Our Forces are central to our national security and to our national character. Let us each make it clear that they are crucial to the future of our Party too.