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Jeremy Corbyn is still dodging the nuclear question

The Labour leader came close but ultimately refused to say that he would approve the use of nuclear weapons. 

In the general election, the Conservatives aim to shoot to kill. By denouncing Labour as soft on defence, they believe they can win their first landslide victory since 1987 (when they similarly tormented the opposition over this issue).

Jeremy Corbyn's Chatham House speech on foreign policy was partly aimed at neutralising this charge. While reaffirming his opposition to western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen, he also declared: "I am not a pacifist". Corbyn, who said during the 2015 Labour leadership contest that he could not think of circumstances in which he would approve the use of military force, added: "I accept that military action, under international law and as a genuine last resort, is in some circumstances necessary." Having not given any examples in his speech of wars he supported, Corbyn later cited the UN action in East Timor as one he backed (though did not renounce his opposition to the Sierra Leone and Kosovo interventions).  

It is the gravest act of all - the use of nuclear weapons - that has proved most fraught for Labour in recent times. Though the party's manifesto has committed to Trident renewal, Corbyn, a lifelong unilateralist, has long refused to say whether he would use the UK's arsenal (and, indeed, has said he would not). Shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, who has said she would, was not invited to the event and did not contribute to drafting the speech (seeing it for the first time at 11pm last night). At her insistence, a manifesto section warning any prime minister to be "extremely cautious about ordering the use of weapons of mass destruction" was removed. 

But in his speech, Corbyn all but repeated it. "I am often asked if as prime minister I would order the use of nuclear weapons," he said. "It’s an extraordinary question when you think about it – would you order the indiscriminate killing of millions of people? Would you risk such extensive contamination of the planet that no life could exist across large parts of the world?" 

He added, however: "Labour is committed actively to pursue disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and we are committed to no first use of nuclear weapons

But let me make this absolutely clear. If elected prime minister, I will do everything necessary to protect the safety and security of our people and our country. That would be my first duty."

That, however, fell short of explicitly stating he would use nuclear weapons (which Trident supporters regard as essential for deterrence). In the subsequent Q&A, when pressed on whether he would approve a nuclear retaliation, Corbyn limited himself to saying that there were "circumstances" where "military force" would be appropriate. It's hardly surprising that the CND vice-president can't bring himself to say he would use nuclear weapons, but it leaves the Conservatives with room to attack. 

As the event drew to a close, Corbyn was asked whether he supported the full renewal of Trident (encompassing four Vanguard-class submarines). Corbyn noted that while parliament had voted for a like-for-like replacement, Labour would hold a Strategic Defence Review, which he did not wish to pre-empt. Though aides subsequently stated that abolition was not an option, the possibility of downgrading the system remains. Labour's nuclear headache will not end here. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.