Hard choices are hard – the politics of Labour’s Trident battle

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I’m sometimes asked why I write so scathingly on occasion of Labour and the left. Why I can’t just turn my fire on the Tories where it belongs. As they do so much damage to the country I love and the people I care for, it would be easy to take that easier option. And certainly I often do so.

Writing a column about how terrible the Tories are is easy. I don’t – like some – believe them to be evil, but I do believe them to be fundamentally wrong in their prescription for the country. The results of their pursuing the wrong path and bad policies does increase the levels of suffering and social evils for many, and they are far too casual about that.

Standing up to the Tories is important. We should make the case against what they are doing to the NHS, to social housing, to the welfare system, to our rights at work and elsewhere and on Europe. I will continue to do so. But they are only one side of the coin.

We can’t and I won’t simply oppose the Tories. We have to be more than just an opposition. An inverse of the Tories. We have to be better than them. Not just in what we believe to be right in policy terms, but politically too. We need to be smarter, faster, more agile. We need to have the right messaging, the right strategy and the right tactics. We need to think beyond our policy differences in individual terms to look at how the next five years will operate as a whole and what will give us the best chance to make a difference to the lives of people we care about.

Sometimes this means incredibly difficult choices for each of us personally. Let me give you an example that is weighing very heavily on me at the moment: Trident.

I am a unilateralist. I always have been. For me nuclear weapons are the ultimate evil. I spent time at Greenham Common as a child and have marched against our ownership of such weapons my whole life. Were it to come to it, if I were a delegate mandated to vote only with my conscience on the issue, I cannot see myself being willing or indeed able to vote in favour of the renewal of Trident.

So far so simple.

But there are plenty in the party who disagree with me. Who see multilateral disarmament as the only way forward and who believe that the only way to have the strength at the negotiating table to bring such an end about is to be part of the nuclear club. This is not an evil view. It’s been the prevailing one of good, strong social reformers in our Party as long as such weapons have existed. These are not evil people who love nukes. They are people who see the way forward differently from me. Perhaps more strategically.

Let’s leave aside who is right for now and look at what the next 12 months will hold on this issue dispassionately.

Renewal of Trident is likely to come before Parliament in a vote this summer – before our next conference. The recent reshuffle has been designed to make it easier for Labour to take an anti-renewal stance. However, our policy – as set by members at conference and supported by our major unions – is to support renewal.

So once again we are set to have a long and bruising internal fight. The question you have to then ask, is what difference will such a fight make to the reality of the situation? The answer I’m afraid is absolutely none.

The Tories – and enough of those Labour MPs who feel differently from me – will vote to renew Trident. Labour MPs will be within their rights to do so under our current policy and that can’t be changed under our rules so if the Leadership try to force a whip it will be within the rights of MPs to vote against it. I imagine they will also mention the times the Leader himself voted against a Labour whip. the unions will be loud in their opposition to the leadership, and we will spend many, many months fighting among ourselves to ultimately no end. Trident will be renewed and we will have spent our time fighting among ourselves.

I am not asking anyone who feels as I do to feel any other way. I wouldn’t and couldn’t. But if I ultimately know that my defeat on this issue is inevitable, I do feel somewhat aggrieved that it is what we are going to choose to focus on rather than on areas where we can speak as one party and possibly even defeat Tory measures that will make an immediate impact. We have seen on areas like Child Tax Credits that we can get the Tories to back down when we put enough pressure on as a united front.

So we have hard choices to make now. Do we fight over things on which we are divided, taking this opportunity for those of us who see a chance to change a policy we have loathed for as long as we have lived but only for Labour – not for the country? Or do we fight on the areas where our doing so can make an impact.

Ultimately, I didn’t join Labour because of it’s position on nuclear weapons (that’s what CND’s f0r). For the vast majority of my time in membership the party has had a position contrary to mine and we’ve rubbed along perfectly well. If party policy does change, I expect the same of the multilateralists. No party has 100% of the policies we agree with.

This is the reality of politics. It isn’t easy. But making choices about internal priorities not external change feels like we are avoiding the hard reality we face and the hard choices we would ultimately like to be making from Government.

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