GE24: Militarist manifestos?

More of the same? Where the parties stand on defence issues.

It’s the first election since Labour’s landslide defeat in 2019, when there was a rare chance of a candidate with pretty solidly anti-militarist credentials forming a government. It was not to be, and it is arguable that foreign policy positions were a major cause of the defeat of the Corbyn-era Labour party. Certainly the then-party leadership’s commitments on Israel/Palestine, for example, rankled with mainstream MPs and the press. There had even been suggestions that a Corbyn win could lead to a military revolt, given the threat he was seen to pose to defence interests. Despite the alarm, Corbyn’s personal opposition to Trident or NATO, to pick just two issues, were not expressed in the last Labour manifesto.

Since then Labour has consciously re-converted towards militarism under Keir Starmer. And this election takes place against a background of political argument over troop numbers, defence budgets and ‘pre-war’ rhetoric, the intensification of a so-called ‘New Cold War’ and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We are also nine months into a US and UK-backed Israeli assault on Gaza which has at times severely wrong-footed mainstream political parties. Foreign policy, which conventional wisdom tells us rarely makes much difference to domestic elections, has shaped the tone, and may even affect the outcomes, of GE24.

It is notable that Labour are running 14 ex-military candidates – ‘Keir’s army’ – and their endorsement is important to the party’s messaging about being a safe pair of hands on defence issues, with the suggestion that they have been selected in order to run in Tory-held seats. The recent and rather puerile concern about ‘stolen valour’, was weaponised by Veteran’s minister and former commando officer Johnny Mercer, who may well lose his seat, who recently suggested that his opponent in Plymouth – a former Royal Marine – had inflated his own military service.

In opposition to these predicable positions, the SNP – which has carved a critical niche on UK military and nuclear policy – as well as the Lib Dems, the Greens and even Reform UK are presented with a chance to advance a more critical alternative of some description. We’ve looked at the manifestos to see if anyone has grasped that opportunity.

In the blue corner

The Conservatives have always positioned themselves as the party of defence. There is some truth in this as the Tories – with many former military people in the ranks of the parliamentary party and membership – have never struggled like Labour to maintain organic links to the military. In fact, Sunak’s opening gambit of the GE period was to tout the imposition of some form of national service. This commitment – which was rather nebulous in it’s detail – was rejected by young people, anti-militarists, centrists and even senior military figures, on many different grounds. And Sunak then found himself hoisted by his own petard in a row over his only partial attendance of a D-Day memorial.

In terms of manifesto content, the Tory offering contains few surprises. They pledge 2.5% of GDP on defence by 2030, and continued promises of support for the defense industry and new tech for the armed forces. They make much of their effort to support Ukraine and another promise to modernise the nuclear deterrent. They assure a focus on cyber and the removal of Chinese influence over UK technology and pledge new post-Brexit sanctions regimes on ‘rogues states’ like Iran and China. The AUKUS pact and other trade deals, they argue, will help secure Britain and provide prosperity.

A range of legislation and improvements aimed at veterans have been pledged including a Veterans’ Bill and the widening of the Armed Forces Covenant to further enshrine rights of personnel and veterans in law at various levels of government.

In the red corner

The early pledges of Keir Starmer’s Labour were clearly meant to reflect the party’s return to nationalism and a militarist foreign policy, and it’s manifesto followed suit.

By way of comparison with the last manifesto there is no suggestion, for example, of a War Powers Act to keep governments in check or any sense of a pledge on an inquiry into torture and rendition. But many key pledges remain similar; for all the noise about the 2019 manifesto being too left-wing, it also committed the party to to increasing troop numbers, maintaining Trident and supporting NATO. The party now promises an ‘unshakeable commitment’ to NATO, pointing out that it was the party that founded the alliance, and an ‘absolute’ commitment to the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

On defence spending Labour appears to be matching the Tories’ pledge and it has committed to a major defence review in the first year to prepare the UK for ‘interconnected threats’. A new military strategic headquarters and national armaments director are also promised, for ‘stronger leadership, clearer accountability, faster delivery, less waste, and better value for money’. The party pledges long-term partnerships with domestic defence industry – as if that’s a new thing – but also does mention that exports need to be ‘in line with a robust arms export regime committed to upholding international law’.

It pledges support for international defence relationships in the same areas as the Conservatives, but also ‘an ambitious new UK-EU security pact’ and places stronger emphasis on multinational institutions and international law and human rights organisations.

The party has pledged to address the shortcomings in military accommodation and troop numbers – a key gripe that Labour have instrumentalised against the Tories in parliament – and to establish an independent armed forces commissioner to ‘improve’ service life in an extension of the Armed Forces Covenant.

Securitisation of borders

Given that Tory political strategy has largely revolved about migrants and channel crossings for some time, its is unsurprising that they now pledge to use the intelligence services to crackdown on migrant boats. Labour also appears to be threatening a war-on-terror style approach to refugee boats in the channel, with ‘a new Border Security Command, with hundreds of new investigators, intelligence officers, and cross-border police officers’. The manifesto announces that Britain is ‘compassionate’, then shallowly frames the migrant crisis in terms of criminality of smuggler gangs rather than taking the opportunity to put forward a more nuanced understanding of how climate crisis, global inequality or various (Labour-led) wars act as factors in displacement.

Both parties seem set on further escalating and securitising this issue and, with Reform UK running on a far-right anti-immigration platform, it will continue to shape post-election debate.

Addressing the Middle East

The Conservative manifesto position on the war in Gaza and strategy for supporting a peace process is very much in line with what we’ve seen so far: effectively supporting Israel in almost all of its actions. Labour do give the situation more thought, although remains too muted in response to the destruction of Gaza. It does state that the party is ‘committed to recognising a Palestinian state as a contribution to a renewed peace process’. Neither party addresses that the UK is helping to arm Israel or the accusations of serious war crimes and genocide, despite fighting the election on this issue against independents in a number of constituencies.


The Scottish National Party (SNP) has often been a voice of reason on foreign policy and nuclear issues in Parliament. It’s 2024 manifesto distils this critique succinctly. The party advocates ceasefire in Gaza, an end of arms sales to Israel, and immediately recognising Palestine as a state. It will continue to militarily support Ukraine in the face of Russian invasion occupation, celebrate Scotland’s relations with the UN, EU and globally, and pledge to increase international aid to 0.7% of GDP. The SNP is a stalwart opponent of nuclear weapons being housed within its borders, but goes further in calling for Trident to be scrapped and for the investment of ‘the billions spent funding these immoral weapons in public services’. The party will also ‘press the UK government to meet their international obligations on nuclear disarmament’.

Lib Dems

The Liberal Democrats share virtually every position of the major parties. They have also pledged 2.5% of GDP on defence, increased troop numbers and warn against the potential re-election of Donald Trump in the US. They will maintain both the nuclear deterrent and full NATO membership. One deviation from current defence policy is a concern about trading arms with human rights abusing countries.

On international affairs, the Lib Dems support Ukraine and pledge to increase the UK’s standing with 0.7% of GDP going toward international aid. Relations with Europe, they argue, must be restored post-Brexit to a state of cooperation rather than conflict and they express a faith in a ‘rules-based’ approach to rising authoritarianism. They default to a ‘both sides’ view on Israel-Palestine.


Under the title ‘A fairer, greener world, the Green Party foreign policy three-point agenda leads with a far more serious line in Israel-Palestine than the main contenders, referencing war crimes committed by Israeli forces as well as the murder of Israeli civilians by Hamas. They pledge to end arms sales to Israel, and the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, to re-fund UNWRA, and work to create ‘a durable political solution that ensures security and equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians’.

The party’s consistent opposition to nuclear weapons endures: they would see Trident cancelled and foreign nukes removed from British soil, and work towards the UK signing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. They would support the role of NATO in responding to security threats but on the basis of it placing more focus on global peacebuilding, and taking on ‘a commitment to a “No First Use” of nuclear weapons’.

Finally, climate finance and foreign aid would be increased in recognition of ‘the importance of supporting countries in the Global South to decarbonise their economies and build resilience’, and tackling the root causes of insecurity that other parties barely acknowledge.

Reform UK

While it leads on hard-right anti-immigration populism and Euroscepticism, Reform’s defence policy shares much with the main parties. While they are critical of the notion of national service pressed by Sunak, they want 30,000 full time armed forces recruits, not short-term conscripts. Reform has similarly pledged to rejuvenate defence industries and reform procurement.

Full free education for veterans, (further) laws to protect troops from prosecution, a new veterans ministry and a new ex-forces complaints and welfare system also feature. On defence spending, Reform has promised 2.5% of GDP by year 3, then 3% within 6 years.

Worker’s Party

The Worker’s Party of Great Britain ‘makes no apology’ for it’s support of Palestine and advocates a one-state solution. The party has centred Israel-Palestine and lambasted the main parties for their supporting of Israeli policy. Their manifesto, includes policies which are essentially old-fashioned social democratic, but also a referendum on NATO, which it see as ‘clear and present danger to the security of the British population’. The party also promises a defence review.

On broader foreign policy the Worker’s Party is ambitious, to say the least: ‘The Workers Party of Britain will reverse British foreign policy which has been dynastic and then capitalist for centuries.’

Other commentary

Our friends at Rethinking Security have produced an excellent election briefing, encouraging questions to candidates about climate change, peacebuilding, support of violent regimes and occupiers, nuclear weapons and inequality.

To grapple with mainstream defence thinking around the election it’s worth reading this briefing from the Chatham House think tank, which looks at how parties may fare – in the very first months of power – in dealing with Gaza, an upcoming NATO conference and US elections.

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