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 Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR