For a party that spent much of its 13 years in government fighting wars in various places, Labour was remarkably incapable on defence policy.

In one of those remarkable feats of Blairite double-think, they somehow managed to divorce (in their minds, at least) the foreign policy element of going to war from the defence policy element of recruiting, equipping and caring for the forces who carry the decision out.

How else to explain the disparity between the repeated decisions to intervene abroad and the well-publicised scandals of shoddy kit, repeatedly delayed procurement projects and vast budget black holes at the MoD?

The experience didn’t leave them quite as toxic on defence as the Foot years – it would be difficult to match the effect on public opinion of a policy which proposed to leave us defenceless against the USSR. But it did leave them with a reputational challenge. How would they go about shaking off the years of negative stories and neglect?

The Murphy Years

Let’s start with a quick survey of the early years in opposition. From May 2010 to October 2013, the formidable Jim Murphy was Shadow Defence Secretary.

A supporter of Israel, a defender of Trident and a rare voice in the Shadow Cabinet for the view that austerity was both fiscally and politically essential, it’s hard to think of a safer pair of hands on the Opposition benches. Throw in his unflappable interview style and it seemed Labour threatened to regain some seriousness on defence policy. At minimum Murphy could hold back some of his colleagues’ more flaky instincts.

But it couldn’t last. With all the inevitability of a slice of toast landing jam-side down, Miliband demoted him to Shadow International Development Secretary. Good news for the Government, not such good news if you consider that a Labour government might actually come about in 2015. It’s a typical Miliband move: the man wasn’t removed despite his relatively reasonable stance, he was removed because of it. Len McCluskey cited him as one of the “four horsemen of austerity”, so he went.

Over to Coaker

In his place is Vernon Coaker, a politician mostly remarkable for his unremarkable junior ministerial career prior to 2010. Unlike Murphy, as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary he toed the line in viscerally opposing austerity, regardless of the economic facts.

He continues that fiscal approach in his current role. It’s a nice soundbite to say that the priorities are strategic needs first and fiscal limits second, but it is meaningless without any reassurance that Labour understands that those fiscal limits do exist. Coaker offers no reassurance that we wouldn’t see another vast black hole open in the MoD under his leadership – a black hole that would have knock-on effects for our forces and for our ability to fulfil those strategic needs he prizes so much. As in every other policy area, without a strong economy and strong fiscal rules, all the goodies Labour might desire are impossible – and yet the would-be Defence Secretary promises the latter while opposing measures to deliver the former.

The details of his approach follow well-trodden Miliband paths. As you’d expect, it’s based on reviewing things.

The first is a review of Labour’s defence policy – it began in 2012 but like most of the Opposition’s policy reviews it isn’t clear when it will be finished, or whether we’ll find out what’s in it before the manifesto launches. Given the dramatic contrasts between Murphy, who launched it, and Coaker, who will take Labour defence policy into the election, it isn’t even clear if the questions asked two years ago are still relevant to the Shadow Defence team.

(In fairness, we do have the results of their 2012 review into defence procurement – which concluded radically that a) things should come in on budget and on time; b) that there should be targets to do so; and c) that Labour would “take politics out of procurement”, whatever that might mean. Depressingly, it was submitted to Liam Byrne and Ed Miliband’s policy review which was meant to report in 2012. It hasn’t been seen since.)

The other major review is a new Strategic Defence and Security Review, which will take place immediately should Labour win the next election. There is an SDSR planned for 2015 anyway, so the proposal is not exactly radical – but Labour policy is so open at the moment that there are no guarantees that it wouldn’t reverse the direction laid out in the previous review – we simply don’t know what their alternative vision is meant to be.

Nor do we gain any further insight from his set-piece speeches on defence strategy. Addressing RUSI in March, he raised a variety of questions and criticisms of the Government’s approach but failedto pitch an alternative. The New Statesman said the speech was an opportunity “to answer how Britain’s military can be a progressive force in a world where terrorism, proliferation, authoritarian aggression, austerity and multilateral gridlock are combining to create a deep pessimism about what the west can still achieve.”

If so, it was an opportunity he missed.

The detail

Take the crucial question of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, for example. The RUSI speech featured a total of three sentences on the topic. They were 1) a statement that Labour wants one, 2) a statement that Britain needs one and 3) the less than specific “we will continue to scrutinise evidence to ensure the most cost-effective and strategic way of delivering this capability”. In short, the briefest possible way of walking the tightrope between voters’ support for a nuclear deterrent and the Labour left’s opposition to Trident replacement.

Meanwhile, we have no idea what that nebulous promise of scrutiny might actually mean in practice. Oppositions ought to scrutinise, but aspiring Governments must propose to act. Promising to think about it is less than reassuring.

On aircraft carriers – a weak spot which Murphy regularly exploited to drag the Government over hot coals – Coaker committed one sentence. Even that was simply to say the UK will have one in future, something on which the Government and Opposition agree.

The Shadow Defence Secretary described his own speech as “ambitious and realistic” – and yet it displayed no ambition and precious little realism. He spent much of it referring to Labour’s foreign policy (itself a patchwork quilt of opportunism and accident, as we covered in a previous article in this series) rather than painting an alternative vision of British defence.

To give credit where it is due, Coaker has maintained Murphy’s positions on the Military Covenant – backing the Ashcroft Review into the reintegration of and support for veterans, expressing support for medical research into medical conditions suffered by veterans, pledging priority for veterans in the NHS and promising to take care of the children of those killed in action. All of these are laudable aims, which find cross-party support, but of themselves they do not make a whole defence policy.

If not this, what?

The Shadow Defence Secretary’s speech to his party’s conference in Manchester flatly laid out the same approach – broad criticisms of government competence, general declarations that he would do better and precious little actual policy. As such, the state of the Opposition’s offering on defence amounts to only a little more than that offered by UKIP; one is supposed to be a party of government, but you wouldn’t know to review their pitch.

In some ways, this is the story of Ed Miliband’s leadership. What talent, enthusiasm or imagination there might have been in the Shadow Defence team in 2010 has been carefully driven out. All that remains is a naysayer, able to object to the Coalition’s actions but lacking the strategy or political will to offer any sort of viable alternative. As Jim Murphy unveils his pitch to lead the Scottish Labour Party today, I wonder if his colleagues in Westminster will realise the mistake they made?