Scotland and Trident: two words Ed Miliband can’t afford to ignore

Unless Ed Miliband changes course on Trident replacement, Labour risks losing not only the general election, but losing its Scottish heartland for good.

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No matter how much Westminster politicians may wish to put Trident on the back burner for the general election, the reality is that’s not going to happen. Our friends north of the border – where up to 75 per cent oppose Trident irrespective of their position on independence – will make sure of that. The leader with the biggest headache over this is currently Ed Miliband: the question of Labour policy on Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons – currently located in Scotland – can make or break a Labour victory and a future Labour government.

Currently the very future of Labour – as a major player in Scotland’s politics – is at stake. Since the referendum, the parties that backed the No vote have taken a nose dive, as thousands have flocked to the parties of the Yes camp, from SNP through Greens, and SSP. Scottish civil society has taken on a whole new look, with widespread popular engagement at an all-time high. Labour is particularly badly hit and opinion polls suggest that it could lose as many as 31 Westminster seats in May’s general election. Reports from within the party suggest high levels of anger and dissatisfaction – about what the party now stands for and who decides where it is going. Johann Lamont’s resignation as leader seemed to sum up much of the problem as she accused Westminster Labour colleagues of trying to run Scotland "like a branch office of London".

It may be that there is no way back in the current context – especially when Gordon Brown’s last ditch promises of vote-winning ‘devo-max’ aren’t being honoured and Nicola Sturgeon offers a more left-wing variant of SNP politics that is potentially attractive to Labour voters. So any hope of a Labour recovery, however marginal, surely hinges now on the outcome of the current Scottish Labour leadership contest where once again Trident is a big factor. A new leader can have a significant impact on where the party is situated politically.

Labour’s leadership is backing the pro-Trident former shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy. But it’s hard to see how Murphy will be able to win support back to Labour on that basis, particularly when significant working class communities in Glasgow and Dundee were lost so recently to the Yes camp.

Of course Jim Murphy isn’t the only option presented to Scottish Labour. Neil Findlay, the most strongly anti-Trident of the other candidates, also presents a policy platform which could help win back voters across a range of current economic and social concerns; areas where traditionally Labour has won strong support but Westminster Labour policies are no longer where Scottish voters are at. These include raising the minimum wage, the reintroduction of council house building and the reduction of private sector involvement in the NHS. If he wins the Scottish leadership on 13 December, Findlay’s active anti-nuclear stance will no doubt win Labour votes – and will force Ed Miliband to look again at Trident replacement.

That imperative may well come from other Scottish sources too. In the event that the SNP takes a significantly increased number of Westminster seats – some estimates are as high as 47 – it’s possible that it may hold the balance of power in a hung parliament, in the same way that the Liberal Democrats did in 2010. Nicola Sturgeon has already said that she won’t make a Conservative government possible but she’s already named her price for SNP support for a minority Labour government: Trident has to be removed from Scotland.

So one way or another, Ed Miliband is having to confront the Trident issue. And whether he likes it or not, it has to be tackled, as these developments show. Kicking it into the long grass of internal party policy debates is just not adequate. The Scots may have forced the issue up the political agenda, but Trident – and whether to replace it – is a crucial issue for us all.