Will Trident split the Labour Party in half?

29th January, 2013 11:10 am

3 submarines, 40 warheads to a sub, 1 million deaths to a warhead. They are the kind of numbers that make for great newspaper columns, as Clive Lewis, writing in the New Statesman, and Polly Toynbee have recently demonstrated. They slot together with beguiling and gruesome simplicity to conjure the apocalypse out of the near future.

Yet the simple maths of destruction makes complex problems for Labour. As the next General Election approaches, Trident will be drawn into the public debate as both the Tories and the Lib Dems rummage  through their trunk of ‘2010 electoral positions that  we had to forget about’ and discover this handy yardstick for measuring their essential difference.

What many fear is that when Labour is implicated in this debate it will be exposed as deeply divided on the issue. 2007 still lingers ghoulishly in the memory, when 95 backbench MPs rebelled against Tony Blair, forcing the then PM to rely on Tory votes to get the Bill for Trident passed. This is why Nick Brown’s recent call for a full debate at the Party Conference has been met with an awkward silence; no one wants to explain the extent of the divisions that such a public airing might expose.

It is for Ed Miliband to pre-empt this potentially uncomfortable conversation by launching a credible Labour position sooner rather than later. Miliband will not give up the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The Tory posture in the next election will be ramrod straight, hair neatly parted, the sober decision makers steeled with Quaker-like resolve. They would love to be able to establish a comparison with the wilting idealists who would dismantle Britain’s nuclear capacity. Ed will back the Trident renewal. But, in so doing, he should seize the opportunity reframe the terms of the debate.

Trident supports 6,700 jobs, many of which are precisely the kind of technical, highly-skilled workers for which Britain normally looks enviously at Germany. Its renewal offers Labour the opportunity to invest up to £20 billion in one of UK’s last areas of industrial excellence: military provision. With a new wave of nuclear power construction expected in the next decade, and signs that the expertise gained in one field would be transferable to the other, Trident can form an integrated part of Labour’s industrial growth strategy. Miliband should repackage the Trident issue on this basis, focussing on the on the jobs created, not the lives terminated.

This will appeal directly to voters, but it will also outmanoeuvre a Tory party that is struggling to talk about the issue whilst gagged by the coalition agreement. Labour can seize the investment angle on this debate as their own and will differentiate themselves from the Conservatives with the emphasis of their support; Labour’s platform is one of level-headed industrial investment, the Tories’ the enthusiasm of the amateur military historian, keen for the latest piece of tech with which to project their hard power.

Trident is controversial issue and it will be a test of Miliband’s statesmanship to see that he can get his party into line. But, come 2015, Trident’s maths of economics may help Labour to reach 326.

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