Labour risks being left behind on nuclear disarmament as recent media coverage reports that senior government figures and serving military officers are willing to reconsider and downgrade the nuclear weapon system being designed to replace Trident.
At the Liberal Democrat conference, former defence minister Nick Harvey – who had led the government’s Trident Alternatives Review while at the MoD – warned of a ‘perfect storm’ of defence expenditure in the next ten years, as Trident replacement submarines compete with other major spending projects. One general who spoke to the Independent said, ‘in terms of pure defence we must explore whether the money spent on Trident can’t be spent better elsewhere’.
Whilst many on the left want to scrap nuclear weapons altogether, the Trident Alternatives Review was established to consider only alternative nuclear delivery platforms and postures. Responsibility for that is now handed to Danny Alexander but interestingly, before becoming a Minister, Alexander asserted his view in Parliament that a genuine review of Trident needed to look at non-nuclear policy options. Similarly, in discussing the Strategic Defence and Security Review during the 2010 leadership election, Ed Miliband rightly said that everything – including Trident – should be up for consideration. With serving officers now questioning whether Trident is the best use of resources for national security, Labour should reopen the debate on the retention of any nuclear weapons.
The National Policy Forum report to Labour’s Annual Conference next week does actually reflect the party’s desire for a debate, which is a step forward. But the Britain in the World Commission says it will wait until the Trident Review reports before it next discusses the issue. As Jon Lansman explains in detail on Left Futures, despite obvious clamour amongst the National Policy Forum delegates meeting in June to initiate a full debate within the party on Trident, the Report to conference states ‘further discussions would take place… after the Government have published their findings of the Trident Alternatives Review’! Why should Labour tail behind the Lib Dems and wait on their Review’s outcomes? In any case this might be hard to achieve because there is no commitment to full publication of the Review.
Activists are tired of such methods being used to shut down debate. Labour Party conference was prevented from debating Trident in 2006 when contemporary resolutions submitted on Trident were ruled out of order because the NPF report referred to the subject. However the report that year actually said, ‘The question of the replacement for the Trident system is one of central importance to our future defence and security requirements and we have said that there should be a full debate on the issue, including the publication of a government white paper.’ Months later – before any realistic prospect of a ‘full debate’ within the party, Tony Blair relied on Cameron’s support to win the vote, as he suffered one of his biggest backbench rebellions: nearly 100 Labour MPs rebelled on replacing Trident. It was a key illustration of the membership being ignored.
There should be no attempt to delay the debate on whether the next Labour Government should continue to back Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons. While welcoming its contribution to the debate, Labour should not be forced into the narrow framework of the Trident Alternatives Review.
Labour should be bold in rejecting Cold War nuclear weapons – most countries do perfectly well without – and instead address real security concerns. We should revive support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (which Robin Cook endorsed as Shadow Foreign Secretary) which provides a pathway to global abolition of nuclear weapons.
Given the widespread demand for a nuclear weapons free world, and the urgent need for the party to make clear choices about its spending priorities when next in government, the choice for Labour is clear. Scrapping Trident should be next Labour Government’s contribution to progress on global disarmament.
The party cannot delay this discussion.