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18 November 2015

Ken Livingstone has apologised but what now for Labour’s defence review?

The former mayor of London's new role as co-convenor has only sharpened the divide over Trident renewal.

By George Eaton

Even those in Labour most hostile to Ken Livingstone’s appointment as co-convenor of Labour’s defence review are stunned by the speed with which he ran into trouble. After much resistance, Livingstone apologised this afternoon to shadow defence minister Kevan Jones, who has suffered depression, for declaring that “he might need some psychiatric help” and that “he should pop off and see his GP”. Jeremy Corbyn, who one shadow cabinet minister told me was “absolutely furious”, had ordered his ally to “apologise to him straight away”. 

But the original controversy over Livingstone’s new role will endure. MPs were stunned by the appointment of the Trident opponent when I tweeted the news last night. John Woodcock, the MP for Barrow and Furness, where the new nuclear submarines are due to be built, and the chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, commented: “Every new day I think we have much reached the summit, but no: there always remains a fresh provocative absurdity.” In the remarks that prompted Livingstone’s attack, Jones said: “I’m not sure Ken knows anything about defence. It will only damage our credibility amongst those that do and who care about defence”.  

Maria Eagle, the pro-Trident shadow defence secretary, is reported to be “furious” at Livingstone’s appointment, which some say she first learned of through Twitter (a claim she has denied). Livingstone told the World At One: “I’ve know her [Eagle] since she was 21, back in 1981, when she invited me to come and talk to her Labour students club, and she took me out for a nice meal. And in the ensuing 35 years we’ve always got on fine. I don’t think Maria Eagle is excited about having nuclear weapons and being able to kill people. She wants to be able to see a way through this problem, to make us a safe country; so do I.”

An aide to Eagle emphasised to me that she would “still be leading” the review. When I recently interviewed her, she pledged that she would examine Trident “with a completely open mind” on “the basis of facts and figures”, adding that she was “not ruling out” backing unilateral disarmament. But the shadow defence secretary, who rebuked Corbyn for saying that he would never press the nuclear button, also conceded that it was “unlikely” she would change her view (and that the Labour leader was “not likely” to change his). 

In contrast to economic policy, where a middle way can usually be identified no compromise presents itself over Trident. Corbyn and Livingstone would not accept a mere reduced system and Eagle told me that she favoured full renewal (four submarines) to maintain a continuous-at-sea deterrent. Among shadow cabinet members and MPs, Corbyn is isolated. There are just four other confirmed unilateralists at the top table: Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Jon Trickett and Ian Murray. Andy Burnham has pledged to resign if the party opposes Trident renewal and others would likely follow. Among the most committed supporters are the Tom Watson, Michael Dugher and Vernon Coaker. Though he rightly contends that he has a “mandate” to oppose Trident, Corbyn could not impose his position on the party without dramatic consequences. 

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Before the review concludes, Labour will be forced to take a stance on Trident in the Commons. Most shadow cabinet members expect Corbyn to offer a free vote but others echo the position recently expressed to me by Dugher: “You can’t have a free vote on Labour Party policy can you? Everyone should vote in a way that’s consistent with Labour Party policy. If you’d like a different policy, change the policy. But you’ve got to go through a process.” After this year’s annual conference voted not to the debate the issue, the party’s official policy remains to support full renewal. Some unilateralists advocate a members’ referendum on the issue but Eagle was said to be “reassured” by Corbyn’s commitment to existing process at their first head-to-head meeting last week. 

There is no conceivable conclusion that will satisfy both the Labour leader and his pro-Trident frontbenchers. As the last 24 hours have shown, the appointment of Livingstone has only sharpened the party’s nuclear dilemma.