Is Trident New Labour’s shibboleth?

Fear of a return to the 1980s has prevented an open debate on nuclear weapons.

On 25 September, the next leader of the Labour Party will be announced. This is the person Labour believes should hold the keys to Britain's nuclear arsenal.

Yet, despite one of the longest leadership campaigns in memory, there has been no detailed debate about the role and scale of Trident, Britain's continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

The clearest positions have been adopted by Diane Abbott, who supports unilateral nuclear disarmament, and David Miliband, who argues that a full renewal of Trident is the only minimal deterrent option Britain has.

To many Labour observers, David Miliband's views represent the head and Abbott's the heart of their party's attitude to nuclear deterrence -- that Britain gets behind Trident or gets out of the nuclear game.

This is a missed opportunity, as a growing number of military experts are voicing scepticism about the current cost and strategic benefit of a defence system designed for the cold war era.

In July, the leading military think tank Rusi published the excellent report Continuous at Sea Deterrence: Costs and Alternatives (PDF). Written by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, one of Britain's foremost nuclear experts, the report lays out four clear options short of full renewal.

According to Chalmers, simply delaying the decision to renew fully for another five years could save as much as £5bn over the next decade. This at a time of severe government debt. Other options considered, such as reducing the number of submarines, could make even more savings while maintaining an appropriate deterrent.

In response to claims that anything less than the immediate renewal of Trident endangers Britain's ability to retaliate to a nuclear attack, Chalmers says it is a matter of "balancing the risk".

He makes the case that Britain's nuclear response is at present maintained in anticipation of a massive surprise attack, which could destroy that response outright. By contrast, the rest of Britain's armed forces are designed on the assumption that the UK would have a long warning period of threat to its homeland. This has allowed conventional forces to be designed primarily to fight expeditionary wars abroad.

Chalmers argues that if a cold-war-type threat to the UK re-emerged in the next 20 or 30 years, then Britain could re-equip as that threat began to loom on the horizon.

The failure to discuss the full range of options on Trident renewal properly suggests Labour leadership candidates are still defined by the battles of the 1980s. Eric Joyce MP, a former PPS to the defence secretary, has observed that Labour's "strict nuclear line" comes from the perception that advocating unilateral disarmament was a key failing in Labour's 1983 manifesto -- nicknamed the "longest suicide note in history".

Since then, Britain's nuclear deterrent has become a shibboleth for those in the party to define themselves against.

But it is easy to overemphasise the importance of this policy to Labour's wilderness years. Given issues such as the Falklands victory, the split that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party and the miners' strikes, the role of nuclear disarmament in losing Labour elections was perhaps more emblematic than critical. When the policy was dropped after the 1987 defeat, Labour appeared no more electable for it in 1992.

It is also important to remember that Labour in the 1980s was not simply made up of a unilateral disarmament left and a pro-nuclear right. A third way was followed by a group of more than 60 Labour MPs who supported the European Nuclear Disarmament Campaign (END).

While END never captured the public consciousness in the manner of CND, it successfully built a broad coalition of unions, politicians and civil society groups across the continent in favour of a European nuclear-free zone "from Poland to Portugal" (PDF). The main focus was to rid Europe of short-range "battlefield" or tactical nuclear weapons, which were seen as increasing the chances of a nuclear exchange.

This was a multilateralist, pragmatic disarmament movement, mainly supported by left-leaning Labour MPs, such as Robin Cook. It could claim a tangible success in putting pressure on the superpowers for the eventual withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons by the end of the 1980s from Europe.

Such a third way is missing from the debate, which is still split between backing a maximal deterrent or unilateral disarmament. There is an opportunity for Labour's next leader to support a cost-effective, credible nuclear weapons system, built to protect against the threats of today, not the ghosts of the past.

Alex Holland is a Labour councillor for Brixton Hill, Lambeth

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.