UK's Starmer seeks to reassure voters with defence pledge

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) -British opposition leader Keir Starmer pledged on Monday to secure the country's armed forces and nuclear deterrent, trying to reassure voters before an election that the nation would be safe in the hands of a Labour government.

Describing Labour as the "party of national security", Starmer turned his campaign focus to defence, seen as a weak spot for Britain's main opposition party under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time supporter of nuclear disarmament.

With conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, defence is taking centre stage before the July 4 election. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last month that only his Conservative Party could keep voters safe in an increasingly dangerous world.

Standing in front of 14 former military Labour candidates, Starmer told an audience: "The people of Britain need to know that their leaders will keep them safe - and we will."

"This Labour Party is totally committed to the security of our nation, to our armed forces and, importantly, to our nuclear deterrent."

He made a commitment to a so-called "nuclear deterrent triple lock" - constructing four new nuclear submarines, maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent and the delivery of all future upgrades needed for those submarines.

Even though Labour is far ahead in the polls, officials say they still need to convince thousands of undecided voters to back what Starmer repeatedly calls a "changed party", one which can be trusted on defence, health and tackling immigration.

The Conservatives believe they have a stronger defence offering, with a pledge to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP a year by 2030 - a target Labour says it wants to match "as soon as possible".

The Labour leader was again asked about his party's stance on the Gaza conflict, after Labour has struggled to hold on to the support of some Muslim voters in local elections.

"The best thing ... for everybody concerned is to press for that ceasefire immediately, straightaway," he said. "That has been our position for weeks and weeks and weeks and months."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Susan Fenton and Alex Richardson)