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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.