Given the Labour Pary's track record on nuclear disarmament – Labour governments have, after all, been responsible for most of the key decisions which have committed Britain to military and foreign policies dominated by nuclear weapons for more than sixty years – is there any chance that the next Labour government will take a more progressive view on Trident than its predecessor, and act to prevent billions of pounds from being wasted on the Trident replacement programme?
Labour's National Policy Forum, which took place earlier this month in Milton Keynes, seemed like a good place to commence any attempt to influence Party policy on Trident. There is, after all, considerable scepticism about Trident among Labour's rank and file, and the National Policy Forum is billed as a vehicle to allow ordinary Party members to have their say on policy.
Submissions from nearly 50 constituency Labour Party organisations were made to the National Policy Forum demanding that the Party commit to scrapping Trident, and an amendment by Labour CND proposed that 'Labour will decommission rather than replace Trident. Labour will re-direct Trident spending to where it best serves our Society. Labour will develop an industrial plan to make use of the skills of those workers in the sector.' Despite this promising start, however, the final statement emerging following the Forum's deliberations stated that 'we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent. It would require a clear body of evidence for us to change this belief.'
Disappointing though this is, there was some limited progress. The statement ends with the words: 'Labour has said that the process and debate leading up to the next Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015 needs to be open, inclusive and transparent, including examining all capabilities, including nuclear……… To this end, a Labour Government will have a continuing consultation, inviting submissions from all relevant stakeholders, including Labour Party members and affiliates, on the UK’s future defence and national security issues.' The door for nuclear disarmament remains open, at least by a tiny crack, if a groundswell of opinion can show that Trident is not wanted or needed.
The sterling efforts of Labour CND and the widespread reaction against replacing Trident from constituencies from as far afield as London, Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire clearly indicates that nuclear disarmament is still firmly embedded and as popular as ever in the minds of the grassroots Labour Party membership. Moreover, as Labour CND's amendment noted, it is an issue which can no longer be ignored within the Labour Party: to parrot Tony Blair's remarks when announcing a return to nuclear power in 2005, the debate at Milton Keynes clearly indicate that Trident is back on the Labour Party's agenda 'with a vengeance.'
Timidity has characterised the Labour Party leadership over recent years and this seems set to continue as they agonise about the power of the right-wing press and the havoc that the press could wreak on the prospects of a Labour election victory with a manifesto that looks in any way progressive or radical – however popular this might be with voters. Weakness on defence coupled with an assumed economic naivity would, in the eyes of the Labour Party elite, spell electoral disaster. But there is plenty of evidence to show that scrapping plans to replace Trident would be a popular measure, and such a decision could free up money which is badly needed for investment in health and education.
We live in a state of constant austerity, yet we seem to have no trouble finding a few billion quid down the back of the sofa to pay the arms manufacturers for designing new submarines to carry nuclear weapons, another billion every year to rebuild the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, and £300 million in small change to refurbish the Barrow shipyard ready to build new Trident-capable submarines. Welfare budgets get slashed while nuclear gets billions.
The cost of replacing Trident is eye-watering and support for scrapping Trident could more easily win Labour the election than lose it for them. It has popular appeal: all the polls demonstrate support for scrapping Trident. It makes economic sense: £100bn over twenty years could do much to improve housing, schools, and hospitals rather than paying for a system which is no defence against the real threats we currently face – such as pandemic diseases, climate change, and extremism. Scrapping Trident is the correct ethical and moral policy option: it is unconscionable that a major, developed, economic and modern country should ever threaten to incinerating millions of civilians in foreign lands while increasing numbers of its own people face increasing hardship.
The Labour Party has eschewed an opportunity to be bold and visionary. But there are nearly two years left before the final decisions on Trident are made, and in between times, we have the Scottish referendum, a general election, a defence and security review, and who knows what economic and political crises as well. Interesting times indeed, but vitally important times as well if our political masters and mistresses are to lead us out of the nuclear darkness into the light.