Jim Murphy: Labour is sticking with Trident

The shadow defence secretary quashes speculation: "we’re not a unilateralist party and we’re not about to become a unilateralist party".

My interview with shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy seems to have been picked up a fair amount today. Some even credited the New Statesman. Others not so much. Interestingly, a couple of Conservatives have today remarked to me that they recognise on their own side the equivalent criticism to Murphy’s “Lazy Labour” barb - a culture of complacency when it comes to the hard graft of campaigning and engaging properly with voters between elections.

“Why would anyone join a political party,” one Tory remarked to me. “You pay 25 quid and get nothing back. Nothing except maybe an email asking you to give more money or inviting you to a really expensive dinner.” The point Murphy makes (which I think is, ahem, much clearer in the original than in some of the write-ups) is that incumbent parties in “safe seats” can no longer cruise along, benefiting to a degree from voter disengagement. The old cliché was that in X constituency you could run a donkey with a red/blue rosette and still win; or in Y area they weight the votes instead of counting them. Now there is more of what Murphy describes as “militant apathy” – an assertive, pro-active rejection of the democratic process and mainstream politicians. That mood is something Ukip has potentially found a way to tap into, which is why Tories as much as Labour MPs found some resonance in what Murphy was saying.

We also talked about his portfolio but space didn’t allow for the digression in print. There was, nonetheless, an interesting and clear exposition of the Labour position on Trident, which has been the subject of some speculation and internal debate.

Murphy said:

Ed [Miliband] and I have spoken about this quite a bit and we’re in the same place, which is that we’re not a unilateralist party and we’re not about to become a unilateralist party.

On the basis that that’s not going to happen you’ve got a choice of four options – which are ships, land, air or subs, which confusingly are called boats. You look at the capability and cost of all four and that’s a process that we’re going through – made more difficult by the fact that two governing parties are involved in a process that is all about politics. Danny Alexander is overseeing it, he doesn’t have a pass for the MoD, it’s a tiny list of meetings that he’s had to do with this issue. It’s all politics.

And when you ask [Defence Secretary Philip] Hammond about it he says the coalition agreement allowed the Lib Dems to work on an alternative proposal for their next manifesto. Now that’s taxpayers’ money being used to fund manifesto research; That’s what the government’s review currently is.

Our process, our plan is to work through the four other options and wait and see the publication of the governments plans. … They’ve got the entire ministry of defence, foreign office and treasury bureaucracies to analyse all the detail – we’ll respond to their analysis.

There’s an argument that says, land and air are more expensive than boat and that ship is potentially cheaper than boat. But the boat is the only one that gives you the ability to retain secrecy - with certainty - about the location of your deterrent.

(In other words, for the time being, in the absence of persuasive new arguments, Labour is sticking with Trident.)

On the Lib Dem approach, Murphy is scathing:

This isn’t to belittle the intellectual search for an alternative, but the crude politics of it are it’s a way for a party that’s on single digits in the polls to get back into their old Iraq war protest votes and say we’re not Tories really. That’s their obsession. We’ll judge it on capability and cost, the Lib Dems are judging it on politics.

Naturally, I asked about the economic strategy and whether Labour is doing enough to persuade people the party can be trusted with public money. (The obligatory question from any journalist interviewing a senior Labour figure.) Murphy said progress was being made in that respect and that it takes time to win back the public’s trust (the obligatory answer). He also made the point – interesting, I think – that Labour’s existing commitments to fiscal discipline are hardly advertised by the party itself, specifically Ed Balls’s pledge to conduct a “zero-based” budget review, which, in theory, would leave no existing element of public spending unchallenged. This was announced before the last Labour party conference little has been heard of it since.

We know a deal-maker with the electorate is a forensic credibility on spending, on deficit and on the debt – which is why the zero-based budget thing is an enormous opportunity which we need to make more of. It’s massive statement.

When asked why more isn’t made of such an apparently significant move, Murphy said only:

"Behind the scenes we’re working through our plans."

Intriguing. We all await with much interest the outcome of that work.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy. Portrait: Dan Murrell.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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