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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.