by Rob Marchant
While the party membership has been convulsed by the burgeoning civil war over the Corbyn leadership phenomenon, policy has – understandably – taken something of a back seat.
However, in recent weeks it has been in the news over one area. Surely, you say, it must be how to rework Labour’s economic policy to make it more electable? After all, aside from the public’s lack of personal engagement with Ed Miliband, that’s the factor generally accepted (including in Labour’s own post-mortem, the Beckett report) to have essentially lost it the last election?
Oh, how naïve. It’s defence, of course. Not because it was an election-loser for Labour, you understand, or even figured highly in doorstep conversations, but because it is a personal hobby horse of Our Beloved Leader and his entourage (prominent kitchen Cabinet members Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne, for example, being long-time Stop the War Coalition stalwarts).
The original brief for the defence review thus considered everything the Stoppers hold dear, from dumping Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent to leaving NATO. That said, last week the leadership rowed back from the latter and sidelined Ken Livingstone from the defence review, realising that leaving NATO was really a step too far for most.
This “most”, interestingly, includes major unions like Unite and the GMB, who realise that many defence jobs are dependent on Britain’s relatively high world profile on defence, not to mention those at Barrow-in-Furness who work for Vickers on Trident. Here membership realpolitik easily trumps a natural inclination for these unions’ leaderships away from nuclear weapons. We now have the absurd compromise of keeping Trident submarines without the warheads.
The review is however still chaired by Emily Thornberry, a keen unilateralist, so Trident is clearly still in play. If anyone doubts that the Stoppers will have an influence on policy, it is virtually laid out in a quote from her last week:
“We will encourage the widest possible participation of Labour party members and affiliates, as well as defence specialists, NGOs and the armed forces.”
This surely has to be the first time in British political history that an NGO has been consulted on matters of national security, hardly a field for NGOs to start with. And, hmm, I wonder which “NGO” she must be talking about? The Stoppers, of course. A political pressure group is not, of course, anything like an NGO, but hey.
Meanwhile in press articles, blogs and on social media, a number of specious arguments have been being made for Britain’s reduction in military capability. For posterity, we record these here:
1.No-one votes for a party on the basis of defence policy, so we should stop worrying about it as regards electability
While it is quite true that defence policy does not generally figure high in the list of voter concerns at election time – the economy, health, education and leadership qualities of the putative prime minister generally decide a lot – this does not mean it doesn’t matter. This is largely because in virtually all elections since the war, there has been little to choose from between the two parties anyway, so it becomes a neutral issue.
But what is also true is that it can form a big reason to discard a party. If one policy in any area seems to the public outlandish, extreme or generally bonkers, it will turn away from it. And for most Britons, unilateralism is one such policy idea. For this reason, it was always clear, even to those of us that backed Kinnock’s Labour through the dark years, that it could never get elected until it dumped that particular policy. And neither did we.
2.The Trident-reducing Lib Dems formed part of a government, and they got elected
Yes, they did, but neither are they strict unilateralists. Moreover, in that perfect storm of coalition during 2010-2015, the only reason that the Lib Dems could manage this while being in government was because everyone knew there was absolutely zero chance that it could ever put its policy in place. Most observers didn’t even see the Lib Dems forming part of a government until polling day, but if anyone had ever seriously thought the Lib Dems might lead a government, they would have very likely have turned away.
3.Trident’s far too expensive and would free up cash for so many other things
As John McTernan argued last September, the actual cost is around £0.5bn per annum over 50 years, although many silly figures are often quoted by interested parties. UK public spending in 2016 is projected as £667bn, i.e. over 1,000 times that. It is money that could be spent elsewhere, but to focus on it as important while ignoring the enormous spends made on the NHS, welfare or education is clearly voodoo maths.
4.Labour has been unilateralist before and we’re still here, what’s the problem
Yes, in the 80s (and almost-but-not-quite in the 50s), the party adopted unilateralist policies. What happened? They were nadir years for Labour, out of power for 13 and 18 years respectively. Yes, correlation is not causation, but it is also difficult to credit that, in such relatively extreme positions, there was no causation at all (see point 1).
5.The Cold War is over and that was NATO’s purpose. The world is a safer place now
Firstly, it is demonstrably not safer, as the rise of ISIS and an aggressive, expansionist Russia give testament to. Apart from that, this is utterly disingenuous on the part of most of the anti brigade (Corbyn, for example, was vociferously against NATO while the Cold War was still raging, as commentator James Bloodworth has pointed out).
6.This is a democratisation of the party, making policy through the grassroots
Is it hell. It is no more making policy through the grassroots, than sending party members an email about Syria is an effective and representative way of canvassing opinion and making policy. Such haphazard consultation methods give, essentially, whatever conclusion you want them to.
If you doubt the disingenuousness of the leadership on this matter and that this “consultation” is merely a mechanism for it to get its way, you might note that in December the party originally planned a whipped vote on Syria airstrikes, against official party policy. And it is not much comfort that the review’s recommendations will later go to the National Policy Forum for ratification, if that body later turns out to be stuffed with Corbyn’s placepeople.
7.We’re in opposition, this will never have an effect until we get into government anyway, why worry?
The argument of some of the “wait and see” contingent on the right of the party is that we shouldn’t worry about something that will likely never happen. But defence and foreign policy are a big deal in the real world, not just in the party and Westminster. In the 2013 Syria vote, it is beyond doubt that Ed Miliband’s decision to torpedo the bill had reverberations far beyond his lowly world role as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. As he found, to his cost, when he received a somewhat frosty reception in Washington some time later. And as the Syrian population has found, to its much more considerable cost. Similar action was then voted on last year, over 200,000 dead later. Lives, quite simply, many of which could have been saved had the earlier vote been successful and then led to US participation.
In short, it’s not just for the future electability of the Labour Party itself that its dreadful turn on defence policy must be resisted, fought tooth and nail. It’s because such resistance is the right thing to do for the country.
Britain can be a force for good the world and yes, for peace, but it will not be through “we want peace” platitudes. We all want peace, but most Britons realise the obvious, that peace often requires a credible threat to back it up.
And it requires the right guiding hand at the tiller. Corbyn’s is not only clearly the wrong hand. It is a hand that will never be allowed to get anywhere near the tiller, and whose even remote influence on defence policy from opposition, indelibly linked as it is to the desperate anti-West sentiment of the Stoppers, is pernicious.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left