Seven rubbish defences for Labour’s defence policy review

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

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19 Responses to “Seven rubbish defences for Labour’s defence policy review”

  1. An Duine Gruamach says:

    So John McTernan isn’t an interested party, then? Right.

  2. Tafia says:

    It would help if we actually had an independent deterrent to start with.

    “Our independent nuclear deterrent is not independent and doesn’t constitute a deterrent against anybody that we regard as an enemy. It is a waste of money and it is a diversion of funds. But some people have not caught up with this reality.”

    Michael Portillo, former Conservative Secretaru of State for Defence

  3. Delta says:

    Well done Rob.

  4. “We all want peace, but most Britons realise the obvious, that peace often requires a credible threat to back it up.”

    Just wondering how far we take this argument? If it applies to “Britons” why wouldn’t it apply also to Germans, Italians , Brazilians, Australians, South Africans etc ?

    Should we recommend that they, too, should have their own “credible threat” to make the world a more peaceful place?

  5. OK so we are a member of NATO. Soon, if we vote REMAIN in the coming referendum, we will be sucked into the European Army. Our defence budget is tiny – getting on for a third of what it costs us to service the national debt. Just £30 billions. Pocket money. And it is badly spent too. Aircraft carriers without planes is as bad as trident without warheads.
    In Basra and Helmand our soldiers were a laughing stock to the USA.
    Our defence is no longer independent in any way and, it could get to be completely controlled from the continent too.
    If we took defence seriously – and we do not – then we would spend a bigger proportion of our tax on it. At the moment, we are spending our tax largely on ourselves – welfare, health and state schools.

  6. swatantra says:

    I want us out of NATO and signed up to a European Defence Force.
    In fact I want ATO scrapped as well as Trident. If the Baltics are afraid of Russia then its there problem. But that Special Relationship with the USA has caused us all unimaginable problems, and led to a world in chaos.
    The Cold War is over, and I have no intention of our troops fighting the Russians just because they repossessed the Crimea ,which all along belonged to them in the first place.
    Peace in our Time, but not appeasement. Our enemy is the Islamofacist.

  7. swatantra says:

    … you could say that our involvement with the islamofacist first began when NATO went into the former Yugoslavia and the balkanisation of that Federation into Boznia Herzogovinia, and the rest We sent in Paddy Ashdown and David Owen to oversee that process. Ever since then its been downhill.

  8. paul barker says:

    I think that you are continuing to underestimate The Left, one of the reasons they are focusing on Trident is precisely because its such a good way to piss off The “Silent Majority” of Labour MPs. Thats not incompetence its long-term strategy, pushing The “Right” to break away.
    Those Moderates hoping that The Unions will ride to the rescue are kidding themselves, they just arent that important anymore.

  9. Delta says:

    has it not occured that the USA is frustrated with NATO due to the lack of co-operation and agreement between them and Russia, why do you think Obama wants the creation of a EU army lol
    I think you will find the USA is fed up of involving itself at great expense in our conflicts and with the EU’s democratic deficit handing them the power over a “united” EU armed force and a security force (that can operate above the laws and influence of any Member State) has every intention of using the Putin activity (which the EU was heavily involved in) to create a New Cold War and a means to project Force against the foe you mention. You neglect to mention Blairs advocating of building an EU army to attack “Isil”.
    How do you condemn his “special relationship” with the USA and then support the assault on “terror” today? Contradiction?

  10. Henrik says:

    There’s a perfectly sensible and grown-up debate to be had about the defence of the UK, including whether/how to maintain a nuclear deterrent, which, ideally, should be kick-started by a similarly sensible and grown-up debate about the national threat and risk assessments.

    Can’t see Labour managing that, somehow. If the most shining defence experts you guys can come up with are Lady Nugee and Ken Livingstone, I’d submit you’re fucked.

  11. Madasafish says:

    I personally doubt the value of Trident .
    But given that Mr Corbyn suggested using the submarines without weapons, I doubt his ability to produce any realistic policy.

    In any normnal party, he would have been laughed at and forced to resign an a total waste of space and an embarassment.

    As for Emily (I hate white van man) Thornberry, she represents the voice of champagne I will treat whatever she says with the same respect as I treat the sayings of Zac Goldsmith…

  12. Tony says:

    “Labour…could never get elected until it dumped that particular policy. And neither did we.”

    And nor did Labour get elected in 1992 after it dumped that policy! Funny how you managed to forget that.

    The success of the SNP throughout Scotland shows that it is possible to oppose nuclear weapons and still win elections.

    The article quotes approvingly John McTernan but what is interesting about him is that he has admitted the real reason for supporting nuclear weapons and it has nothing at all to do with defending this country from nuclear attack.

    Here is the quote I am referring to:

    “If we didn’t have Trident we’d be Belgium. Some people would find that a comfortable place to be. I wouldn’t. If Britain is going to be a major power, Britain should have the kinds of weapons a major power has.”

    Other people in the Labour Party hold similarly morally bankrupt views.

    John McTernan on “Who Needs Trident?” broadcast by BBC Scotland on 23 February 2011.

  13. ad says:

    6.This is a democratisation of the party, making policy through the grassroots

    In a democracy policy should be made by the representatives of the people, not by party activists. Unless the Soviet Union is your idea of democracy.

  14. John P Reid says:

    Tony, labour got more votes when we lost in 1992 than when we won in 1974′ we increased our percentage from 30% on a 75% turn out, to 34.5% on a 78.3% turnout,

  15. leslie48 says:

    Brilliant piece. There were only a few of us back in 2013 who realised this after so many deaths of moderate rebels including families and kids : as Rob says “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.” Miliband and his team have done great damage to world affairs if only by stopping the UK Parliament by a small majority from joining Socialist France, Democratic USA and Allies in stopping Assad who had just gassed his people.

    As the NY Times said at the time “the Obama administration received strong support from France on Friday and released a detailed intelligence summary to buttress its contention that the Syrian government used chemical munitions in an Aug. 21 attack, asserting for the first time that it had killed 1,429 people, nearly a third of them children’. Our Labour Party colluded in this halt to Obama’s policy towards the Syrian hell and we hid behind Putin’s skirt. This was the point that our Socialist Internationalism and care for victims just halted.

  16. GTE says:

    Ho hum.

    Putin orders the murder of someone in Britain.

    What are we going to do if he goes even more bonkers?

    Nukes are needed when you have people like Putin with their nukes.

  17. landed peasant says:

    “It would help if we actually had an independent deterrent to start with.”

    Shame Portillo doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about, the moment the D5 missiles are loaded onto a British Sub the Americans have no ability to stop them being launched, yes they can deny GPS access, but the celestial navigation system is more than accurate enough for nuclear use, and much like Polaris before it we have no idea how Trident has been modified in British service.

  18. Tafia says:

    Landed Peasant Portillo was Secretary of State for Defence – the highest ranking politician other than Prime Minister over all things to do with Defence.

    The US also controls the navigation systen for the submarine itself. Although it’s not essential that boat knows exactly where it is prior to launching, it does improve the accuracy,

    The celestial in-flight navigation system the Americans publicly claim they control, maintain and refurb wjereas the UK government says it is ‘mostly’ done in the UK.

    Then there is the Tritium gas fill for the warheads. Built, filled, re-filled and replaced inside the US (which will be part of the non-nuclear warhead components the US says it does which the UK government says it doesn’t)., the missiles themselves all maintained and rotated in America on the strict understanding we don’t tamper with the electronics.

    Then there’s the cross-party report (note – cross party) .

    Then there’s the US Department of Energy declassified documents where they claim that parts of the warhead are built and refurbed in the US, along with the star guidance system. (Something the UK government wobbles between denying and refusing to comment on).

    The US position is they have full control over the guidance systems including maintainance and refurbishment programmes – something the UK government won’t comment on, and the US government insists it has control over certain (non-nuclear) parts of the warhead, again including refurbishment, replacement and upgrading – something the UK government flatly denies.

    t’s also reliant on programming of gravity fields and weather data from the US.

    There’s also a very good report by the Commons Defence Select Committee from a decade ago where they cross examined all sorts of people from scientists to former navy commanders and eventually ruled it wasn’t a fully independent deterrent and challenged the MoD to respond and prove otherwise. To this day the MoD has not responded.

    The only country on the planet that has nuclear weapons but doesn’t have full control is us.

    In reality, we only want them for political reasons – the entitlement to be a permanent member of the UN SecCo with fukk power of veto and that is all.

  19. TrT says:

    “I want us out of NATO and signed up to a European Defence Force.
    In fact I want ATO scrapped as well as Trident. If the Baltics are afraid of Russia then its there problem.”

    The Baltics are members of the EU and are protected by the EUs mutual defence treaty, which is far more all encompassing than Article 5 of NATO…

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