Labour’s Nuclear Question

May 10th, 2016 | By Barry Winter | Category: Articles, Comment, Features, Frontpage, Lead

Can Labour find a way to bridge its divisions over Trident? Or will a policy to scrap the nuclear warheads strike a final nail into the party’s electoral coffin? BARRY WINTER calls for a national debate and a Labour-led referendum on the issue.

Britain’s nuclear defence strategy has often sown deep divisions within the Labour movement. No less so today given Jeremy Corbyn’s ardent opposition to the party’s current policy to renew Trident. While 68 per cent of members today share his views, he faces formidable, not to say fierce criticism from within the party and the unions.

Trident picAmong the critics are two Labour peers and former MPs, John Hutton and George Robertson. They were very quick to dismiss the party’s new defence review as “sliding into chaos and incoherence”. For them, the shadow defence secretary’s argument that nuclear submarines will be more detectable in the future, and therefore more vulnerable to attack, is a fallacy. They confidently insist that the updated system will provide Britain “with a powerful, invisible, secure and invulnerable deterrent for many years to come”.

Both are former Labour defence secretaries and presume to speak with authority. They also claim that other, cheaper nuclear alternatives – whether land-based or using aircraft – are simply non-starters.

Robertson is a former secretary general of NATO and now earns an estimated £0.5 million a year on the boards of several large companies. One of them sells weapons to the Royal Navy and another is involved in military aerospace. While this does not of itself disqualify his remarks, it signals how much of an establishment figure he is. Not an infallible one, however. As secretary of state for Scotland in 1995 he confidently pronounced: “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.”

John Hutton was formerly the MP for Barrow where the nuclear submarines are built. He sits on the board of an American nuclear power company. Described as a highly capable “ultra-Blairite”, Hutton was one of Tony Blair’s closest supporters. Of course, this does not invalidate his views. However, it suggests that he’s part of the rough-and-tumble of politics rather than above it.

Interestingly, Blair’s memoirs reveal that during a conversation with Gordon Brown in 2007 both were rather dubious about renewing Trident. “Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion,” he declared. However, they agreed to take the line of least resistance. Blair wrote: “As I said: imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying I’ve decided to scrap it. We’re not going to say that are we?”

Blair also admitted that in terms of the utility and cost (£31 billion, with another £10 billion in reserve, plus lifetime costs predicted to exceed £180 billion) Trident was a problem. As he put it, both “common sense and practical argument” suggest we should get rid of it.

He chose not to because he feared it would downgrade Britain’s international status. In other words, for him, Trident was a symbol – albeit an expensive one – of British nationhood. Since then, the estimated replacement costs continue to spiral upwards.

The Labour government’s Bill to proceed with the first stage of Trident renewal was taken formally in Parliament in 2007. Its passage was ensured by support from the Tory opposition, overcoming what the Guardian described as a “massive Labour rebellion”. The paper reported that 85 Labour rebels “disobeyed a three-line whip and voted against the government”. It also pointed out that before the vote “four members of the government resigned in protest at the plans”.

Doubts, indeed, dissent over Trident renewal is not to be found exclusively in the Labour Party, however. As Tariq Ali records: “A number of retired generals have questioned Trident’s utility.” Last year, Michael Portillo, a former Tory defence secretary himself, joined the debate. He declared: “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 that might otherwise be spent on perfectly useful and useable weapons and troops. But some people have not caught up with this reality.”

Another fervent opponent of Trident is the former Labour foreign secretary, David Owen, one of the founders of the breakaway Social Democratic Party and a member of the House of Lords. He wrote that Britain should never have bought Trident in the first place, adding, “Many senior people in the Ministry of Defence want to keep a minimum deterrent, with Astute submarines with cruise missiles” rather than retain Trident.

In 2010, Owen made a sweeping attack on the government’s defence policy, describing the estimated £15-£20 billion it would take to replace Trident as “no longer credible”. He argued: “Unless we learn to focus our defence budget far better than in the last decade Britain will look increasingly like a toothless lion. That will diminish our influence and power in the UN security council far more than moving to a non-ballistic cruise missile minimum nuclear deterrent.”

So you don’t have to be a Corbynista – or a member of CND – to doubt the validity of continuing with the current nuclear defence programme. Even a former defence chief, Field Marshall Michael Carver, asked bluntly of Trident, “What the bloody hell is it for?”

Serious blow

Blunt is also an apt description of the stand taken by those trade unions that are keen to keep Trident. Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s largest union, Unite, has made his union’s position very plain. It supports the nuclear programme because it provides members with much-needed jobs. He warns that if Labour rejects Trident, Unite could disaffiliate. This would be a serious blow to the party.

A senior official of the GMB has warned that the union will also reconsider its links with Labour over the issue. Its Scottish secretary was equally forthright. He told the BBC that Labour’s opposition to Trident would be like “trying to throw our members out of jobs… and we aren’t going to have it”. Both unions represent many thousands of shipyard and defence workers in Barrow and Devonport.

So the political stakes for the party are very high.

In response, Jeremy Corbyn has tried to find a compromise. Labour, he says, would agree to the construction of the new submarines to protect jobs, but it would not purchase the US-built nuclear warheads.

While I respect his attempt to respond to the unions’ concerns, this idea does not impress. Surely there are more creative ways of preserving workers’ jobs than making four very expensive submarines that serve no purpose? The democratic socialist journal, Chartist, put it more firmly. It argues, “The idea of keeping a form of submarine purely to provide employment is absurd.”

Several left commentators, including Chartist, have suggested the Lucas Aerospace plan from the 1970s offers a far better alternative. Encouraged by the then industry minister, Tony Benn, and facing the threat of closure, members of the workforce devised a range of creative ways to turn swords into ploughshares. These included solar and wind power, hybrid engines and battery packs for electric cars. However, the Labour government took no interest in the proposals and, sadly, a valuable opportunity was lost.

So, if Labour wants to scrap Trident, it should guarantee the workforce is given every opportunity to develop an alternative programme, a plan that’s fit for our times. This will certainly present a challenge, and is not a quick fix. But it could offer a constructive and co-operative way forward.

Of course, even if Labour does suggest such an alternative, the party’s Trident problems do not end there for there is a wider issue which must be faced: Labour’s electoral prospects in 2020. How far is the electorate likely to agree with a party aiming to get rid of nuclear weapons? Might such a policy provide the final nail in Labour’s electoral coffin? After all, Labour already faces an uphill struggle to widen and deepen public support, to put it mildly.

The Independent in January reported that “the public supports the government’s proposal to fully renew Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons programme” with a “narrow majority”. Fifty-one per cent of people were in favour of doing so, “while a total of 49 per cent prefer either non-nuclear submarines or reject any renewal”. Not surprisingly, opposition to full renewal is highest in Scotland where the Trident fleet is moored. One in four Labour voters rejects any form of renewal, while the others are divided between full renewal and Jeremy Corbyn’s option.

Scrapping Trident with a divided electorate and a divided Labour movement presents a huge challenge for the party, and that’s without considering the Tories’ efforts to rig the electoral system, the malign influence of the right-wing media, and the political sea-change in Scotland.

During a general election campaign, the Conservatives, their media allies and their wealthy backers will stoop as low as necessary to ensure Labour’s defeat, giving it a very rough ride. As has been widely acknowledged, older voters are more inclined to keep Trident and more likely to vote, compared with younger people, who are much less likely to be in favour of nuclear defence and less likely to vote.

Left-wing case

Fears that an anti-nuclear stance would pose a great risk to Labour’s uncertain electoral prospects has led the radical commentator, Paul Mason, to call for a very different approach. He writes: “The urgent policy issues for Labour are defence, industry, Scotland and welfare.” Therefore, “the party needs to bury its differences on Trident around a solution that involves both wings compromising on their principles”.

What he means by this is spelt out in a short, punchy video, entitled ‘The left-wing case for nuclear weapons’. Here he argues: “I think Labour should vote to keep Trident. If Jeremy Corbyn can bury this issue, Labour could in 2020 form the first radical, left-wing government in a major country.”

Mason feels that Britain today faces two rapidly evolving threats – terrorism and a “newly aggressive and unpredictable Russia”. He dismisses the Tories’ defence policy as “dangerously incoherent”. The government, he says, is building up “a massive expeditionary force and a massive naval base in Bahrain”. He argues that we should “step back” such expeditions noting their failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have “set the Middle East on fire”.

Instead, Britain should focus on being part of the NATO mission to defend eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic, and deal with terrorist attacks. Like President Obama, Britain should communicate a clear set of conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, instead of the Cold War policy of keeping the Russians guessing.

He earnestly wants Labour back in government to stop the NHS being destroyed, to prevent the Tories “shovelling public assets” into private hands, and to stop social “cleansing of our cities”. For these reasons, he argues, it’s worth spending the money on Trident, which has helped to keep the peace, and which “will never be used”. Then “we should be able to focus on what really matters for ordinary people”.

One could easily add to his wish list – not least a desire for Labour to tackle the Tory-induced housing crisis and to revive social housing.

While some of his arguments tread on my emotional toes, and others need clarifying, I admire his courage in taking this stand. Needless to say his stance has attracted plenty of criticism from the left, although some critics fail to engage with his main points.

In her more considered response, Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND, makes a good case against Trident. But she steps rather too lightly over Mason’s basic argument. She simply claims that he’s mistaken in his belief “that opposing Trident would be detrimental to Labour’s electoral chances”. For her, Mason “clearly doesn’t realise the scale of opposition to Trident, across society and across the political spectrum”.

Sure, there’s considerable opposition to Trident. But I don’t share her confidence about Labour’s electoral prospects with a manifesto pledged to scrap it. In these unstable times, her certainty could prove to be a bit of a luxury. It’s not illegitimate to ask her to consider what happens if she’s wrong: another five years of Tory government with all that entails, including Trident’s renewal.

Paul Mason’s argument does force us to face up to what is a genuine dilemma. However, I do accept that what he proposes is a very Big Ask for people who oppose nuclear weapons. It’s probably a compromise too far for many party members, not least the Corbyn leadership. Of course, until the party’s defence review is published, we cannot be sure how the debate will develop.

However, there is an alternative to his proposal to retain Trident.

The party should promise in its manifesto that a Labour government would hold a national debate on the future of Trident, and a referendum on what course of action to take. This process should involve a commitment to take the issue to every locality through a series of events and discussions.

It should then be possible for the peace movement to make its presence felt, but without denying pro-Trident voices. That means MPs like Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle would be free to express their views without being stigmatised.

If anything, the forthcoming referendum on EU membership serves as a warning about how not to proceed – from David Cameron’s phoney ‘agreement’ with the EU, to the blood-curdling splits within the Tory party.

A referendum on Trident does not need to be done that way. And it could help Labour get back into power.

Moreover, if those of us opposing Trident’s renewal can’t win the argument with the public when it is the main focus of attention, then so be it. We lose. That’s democracy. Better to have a full and frank debate without the encumbrance of a general election. Labour should do its best to ensure that it’s a well-informed, lively but respectful discussion on what is, after all, is an important but complex topic.

Hopefully, it should be possible to encourage a political debate that rises above self-righteous emotionalism and private financial interests. In the process, if we can begin to reduce people’s cynicism towards all things political, this would be an advance, for it is this alienation that hinders the development of a credible progressive movement in the UK.

It will not be easy, but it is possible. It’s certainly worth trying.

Tags: , , , ,

10 comments
Leave a comment »

  1. Thoughtful, nuanced and constructive article on the contentious Trident debate.

    I am disappointed, however, that on a topic that is highly contentious within society, and more so within the ranks of the Labour movement, with the potential to blow a broad church Labour Party to smithereens, there has been no comment on Barry’s article and the numerous problems that cancellation would bring in its wake, nor on what might be the most efficient, cost-effective, democratic and least damaging means of deciding the matter.

    But, to my mind, the idea that a future Labour government would commit to spending thousands of billions on a weapon of mass destruction, that is no way independent and can never, ever be used, is, in an age of austerity, beyond ridiculous. In this regard, it would be interesting to know in what circumstances Labour’s armchair generals would press the destruct button.

    Swords into Ploughshares
    On the issue of trade unions and jobs, while the swords into ploughshares option sounds attractive and is a much better alternative to letting redundant workers sink or swim via market forces, it could prove to be hideously expensive administrative nightmare and especially so if managed by the DWP whose record on managing work programmes under consecutive Tory, Labour and Con/Dem governments, can only be described as incompetence and failure personified. And in line with the view of Chartist, building expensive submarines to sail the world empty, and just to placate a few trade union officials threatening to take their bat-and-ball home, is beyond bonkers and pure Kafkaesque nonsense.

    Exclude Private Sector
    It would be far better to offer a guaranteed basic income to all redundant workers, paid for a maximum of two years for all who retrain, change direction and start their own business providing they enrol on an appropriate, skills training, educational or self-employment course run by a local college of further education. But any such system should exclude the toxic private sector agencies who promise much, deliver little and rip-off both the beneficiaries and the tax-payer.

    Equally nonsensical is the line peddled by Paul Mason – compromise on keeping Trident so as to get a radical left-wing government elected in 2020. That sort of compromise before an election, with the present intake of Labour MPs, full of Blairites and neoliberal apologists, is laughable and the politics of la-la land.

    Non-Nuclear
    But, in any event, opposition to scrapping Trident and to a non-nuclear Britain (the two must go hand-in-hand) by big money and vested interests, from assorted Colonel Blimps and those who buy into the narrative that Putin’s Russia is intent on world domination and a threat to the UK’s geopolitical interests, will be intense, crude and nasty.

    Unilateralists must make their case honestly, so compromises of the Paul Mason sort will weaken, not strengthen the case for scrapping the bomb. We know that opposition from inside Labour will be vociferous and divisive, with talk of red lines, resignations and jumping ship (to the Tory Party). Labour grandees will bewail Britain’s relegation from the top table of world politics.

    There will be any number of wannabe Labour foreign secretaries and nuclear apologists parroting Aneurin Bevan’s 1957 conference plea not to “send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber”, conveniently forgetting that Bevan’s plea in support of a British bomb (passed by conference) was supposed to be a negotiating plan for a nuclear-free world.

    Despite the vote, neither Bevan nor any Labour leader then or since has attended a world or bilateral conference aimed at getting rid of the bomb. Perversely they have all spent hundreds of billions on modernising the UK bomb and its delivery systems. So what was all the noise about in 1957?

    Referenda – Two Stage Process
    For what it’s worth I fully support Barry Winter’s plan of resolving the matter via national referenda but with one important caveat. The referendum should be a two-stage process with the aim of getting Labour agreement first, so then a united party could join with the Scot Nats, Greens and Plaid Cymru in united opposition to the Tories and those who want Trident and nuclear weapons. In saying this I’m mindful that 60 years of attending CND, Labour Party and trade union conferences and demonstrations opposing nuclear weapon came to nought. They have made a lot of noise but have been a complete waste of money, time and effort.

    In this regard, I do not think it possible to have a national referendum on Trident and nuclear weapons without a meaningful trigger to spark off a national debate. Expecting the Parliamentary Labour Party to initiate a national referendum without first settling the matter internally, even with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, is unrealistic moonshine. But settling the matter internally as the start of a two-step process, and done electronically via a one-member-one-vote system, does, to my mind, have merit.

    So if the Labour Party was to settle its internal differences by a national one-member-one-vote referendum and do it electronically and cheaply it would settle the matter one-way-or-other. And if it dilutes Labour’s representative decision-making system, which often creates more noise than clarity, not just on the nuclear issue, so much the better.

    It’s about time the Labour Party and the Westminster elites joined the 21st century because the very best focus group and means of testing the views of the people you represent is to ask them all. After all, these important people are always keen to modernise and improve efficiency when it comes to the world of work (usually job losses and less money for the plebs, rich rewards for the bosses and those in power), so why not modernise their own ways of doing and deciding things.

    Bring on referenda, I say.

    Great article, Barry.

  2. My thanks to Ernie for his kind remarks and his interesting response to my article on Trident.

    However, I don’t share his proposal for holding a referendum within the party on the policy before having a national referendum .

    Labour is currently undertaking a defence review which I presume will be submitted to Annual Conference for endorsement. There is no way that the leadership can suspend the party’s decision-making processes in favour of an internal referendum.

    My guess is that any attempt to do so would probably create uproar. It would detract from the real debate that’s needed rather than enhance it. Yes, let’s have a rigorous – and preferably respectful – discussion on defence policy. But the last thing we need is for the Corbyn leadership to be seen to be playing fast and loose with the party’s formal decision-making processes.

  3. Nope – cannot agree with Barry this time round.

    Yes, Labour is in the process of a defence review but anyone who thinks this will resolve differences and result in the Labour Party broad-church uniting around its conclusions should dream on.

    While there are diverse perspectives on all areas of defence and especially on membership of NATO, nuclear weapons, Trident and the size and shape of the armed forces. The issues then, are as old as Methuselah and are always contentious having been banded around and debated endlessly via Labours’ representative democracy and conferences.

    Why then would it be different this time round with or without a leader called Corbyn. Most Labour Party members and trade unionists know the issues and hold firm views one-way-or-the-other so the current review is unlikely to shine light or change minds. But what it does do, is kick the problem into the long grass with the likely outcome some grubby compromise like sailing empty but expensive submarines around the world or some gibberish like the Paul Mason compromise, which is a complete cop-out and nothing to do with the defence apart from the status quo.

    And of course, most of us know, there will never be a meeting of minds with people at the extremes of this debate, between the likes of John Hutton, NATO flag wavers and those who sit in Parliament like Hilary Benn, et. al. voting to bomb the shit out of brown people in Syria and the middle east vis-a-vis those unilateralists (like me) who want minimal defence.

    So far as I am concerned Labour has more than its fair share of arm-chair generals.

    So expecting our representative democracy to solve the Trident problem, which CND estimate will now cost £205bn is wishful thinking.

    But a one-member-one vote referendum while not silencing all, especially the mal-contents and the Parliamentary know-it-alls, will settle the matter in the most democratic way possible. Using modern technology as a means of consulting the entire membership is not a cop-out and should be the future cos to my mind, Labour Party conferences and internal debates are talking shops, a waste of time and money and yesterday’s politics.

    And it worries me that a prominent ILPer (any ILPer) would choose formal party procedures which have got us nowhere for 60 years or more, over referenda and direct democracy. The membership should be king.

  4. Barry: I feel that we need to be very careful about seeking to resort to the use referendums. In particular, I don’t feel that these are a fruitful device to help a political party to overcome its internal policy differences. It does not seem to be working for the Conservative Party over the EU referendum. Nor do I see it as working for the Labour Party over Trident. Although it might aid the career of a Labour Party Boris.

    We need to work out just what the role of referendums should be in politics, especially in a world that is coming to see a growing dominance of computer technology. Although at the moment, referendums can’t just be run via the click of a computer button, for this would disenfranchise many in society. So we still need postal ballots and perhaps polling stations for the operation of a nationwide franchise. But we also need to think of what might be possible in the future.

    We are then into the question of which issues shall be decided by referendum-sytle techniques. At one end of the spectrum, it is often felt that referendums should be restricted purely to constitutional matters. Such as – should we remain a member of the EU, should we adopt a written constitution (and which options should we go for), if we get a constitution then could that itself provide for a specified amending procedure for its contents with a built-in referendum process?

    But should we go beyond constitutional matters in using referendums? If so, what principle should we adopt to determine what it is that fits into the referendum pattern? Whether or not we keep Trident and nuclear weapons is, of course, a key issue. But what criteria should we place (in, say, our written constitution) to allow such an issue to qualify for a referendum? Will the criteria allow us get other referendums, and on what issues – climate change, taxation levels, immigration, fracking, the tobin tax, etc? To achieve what is to be covered by referendums, what criteria should we write into our laws?

    Ernie: if the Labour Party adopts a procedure to decide its policies via internal referendum techniques, how will this work? If all members are to be covered, then currently we will have to go beyond votes via computer techniques. Perhaps we can have a set of (costly?) postal votes via the Electoral Reform Society, to add to those voting via computers. Although I grant that this problem could perhaps be tackled in time – when we are all computer literate and all have access to the technology. But how will we decide which issues are put to us via Labour’s internal referendum process? Is this power to be given to the NEC, the PLP, annual conference, the leader of the Labour Party? Who? And why?

    If referendums are held on a regular basis (like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’), then will Labour still need to hold branch, constituency or even discussion meetings? Perhaps, because people don’t nowadays seem to flock to such meetings? But how do we then get the dialectics of debate moving in the Labour Party? For I tend to find that outside of the ILP-style comment boxes, much of the political debate on Facebook and the like amounts to political farting. (That is not, of course, the case between Ernie and myself when he turns to my blog!)

    Perhaps for now (until we have thought through the needs of democracy in a changing technological world) we should stick to refining democracy in the Labour Party by encouraging people to attend meetings and operating forms of participation, discussion and the mandating of delegates. The fact that this has never worked fully, does not mean that it can not be perfected – given blood, sweat and tears.

  5. There is a new “Labour is Listening” web-site here – http://labourislistening.org/

    Its intial two trial topics are “Small Businesses” and “Housing”. Given the success of the recent ILP Day School on Housing, the ILP itself could make a meaningful contribution on this topic. It could also be put to them that its next topic could be “Trident”. That might be a practical step which would relate to both Barry’s and Ernie’s above concerns.

  6. I agree with Harry Barnes, because the problem with referenda is that decisions are taken by people who may not have engaged fully with the debate. For that reason I think the current EU referendum is a huge, potentially disastrous mistake. The importance of debate cannot be overestimated – it provides for the possibility of people changing their minds in light of the facts and arguments. Modern technology just magnifies the problem of uninformed decision-making . Correct me if I’m wrong, but back in the 80s, when one member one vote (OMOV) was championed by the right, as an alternative to decision by meetings, conferences, mandated delegates, etc., and opposed by the left, I seem to recall that the ILP argued for OMOV provided those voting had been members for a stated period of time and had attended a minimum number of meetings. I think that was a sensible position.

    With regard to Labour’s problem with what to do about Trident in particular, and nuclear weapons in general, I agree we need a compromise to unite the party. I suggest Labour might unite around a policy involving: 1. a national debate (short of a referendum) about the relevance or otherwise of nuclear defence. 2. Keeping Trident in the short term, while postponing renewal and working towards international negotiations in which Britain’s position would be to give up or reduce its nuclear arsenal in return for similar undertaking by other nuclear states. Of course, as a result of such a debate, public opinion might move against retention, enabling a Labour government to move unilaterally to a non-nuclear defence strategy.

  7. What Barry, Harry and John seem to be saying, in their different ways, is that Labour has got a Trident problem but in order to maintain the Party unity and its broad church (which is desirable) the only way is to compromise because internal referenda would threaten party unity and further fragmentation.

    So on the issue of nuclear weapons and Trident, no matter how expensive and illogical, Labour’s representative democracy, which has proved to be woefully flawed, allows those who make the most noise, who talk about red-lines, who threaten to jump ship, who have the ear of the red-tops and the establishment, always get their way by appealing to tribal loyalties and bullying party members into submission and the idea that they know best.

    Those who are out-and-out unilateralists, without being pacifists, can then easily be dismissed as unrepresentative and, if not labelled nutters, quickly dismissed as common trolls, “barrack-room lawyers” who use social media to let off steam and engage in Harry’s “political farting”. But in a democracy, everyone including the nutters are entitled to a point of view and a vote on issues of importance and concern. So on major and intractable issues, like Trident and the EU, there is no better way to test the views of Labour Party members than to ask them and to do so via referenda.

    And in this day and age, it can be done speedily and cheaply via the internet and by the issuing of passwords to every party member. And for those without a computers and/or IT knowledge, there are libraries and Labour Party branches who can identify and help.

    Having said that, I accept that I’m whistling-in-the-wind because far too many Labour Party members, including many on the left (perhaps some ILPers), put tribal loyalties and protocols and procedure ahead of solving controversial problems, but maybe on the basis that politics is all about compromise and the art of the possible and not about impossible dreams.

    Well when it comes to nuclear weapons and Trident, I have a dream and it’s not a Labour one.

  8. Ernie: Getting the Labour Party to run a referendum on Trident would seem to require submitting a relevant resolution for this via constituency parties and/or affiliated organisations – to annual conference. And then to win a priorities ballot so that the resolution could then be brought to the floor of conference and then to carry that vote. On the other hand, the same procedures could just be used to commit the Labour Party to the removal of Trident without needing to use the referendum technique.

    I feel that we need to be careful about just where different styles of referendums will lead us to. We are used to a party political system, which can allow for changes of direction on ranges of issues depending upon general election results. But what should happen if referendum politics come to the fore? How many referendums should Scotland have for independence, then if one is carried can we have more referendums to see if they should rejoin what is then left of Britain? If the EU referendum decides that we leave, then what about a later referendum to decide whether we should seek to rejoin again? If we have referendums on Trident and it goes, then can we have a later one to see if it is re-established? Should we have a mimimum number of referendums each year and how do we decide the issues? Perhaps we could have a priorities ballot via referendum.

    Perhaps we can come up with clear cut answers to such conundrums. But we probably need many old fashioned meetings and discussions to get our heads around such matters.

  9. I share Harry and John’s views about the current referendum on the EU. It’s being conducted in a shameful and shoddy way by the Tories and is belittling political debate. But it does not have to be like that.

    Harry is perhaps being too cautious, preferring to debate the role of referenda before we consider holding one on Trident. For me, a properly conducted and creatively organised referendum could provide a useful testbed for what to do in future. It could be used to show the benefits of a good example.

    Of course, there are no guarantees but a genuine attempt to engage people, as I tried to suggest, one that involves the peace movement, offers a real opportunity.

    Even in the present shambolic EU debate, the group Unlock Democracy is providing one example of how to encourage genuine and informed participation in discussions. (http://www.unlockdemocracy.org/events/2016/5/22/leeds-eu-in-or-out). We could learn from them.

    My main concern is the danger of overloading Labour’s electoral prospects if it carries a manifesto pledge to scrap Trident. Instead I’d prefer a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on its future. Amidst the rough and tumble of a general election, fed by a poisonous right-wing press, the kind of debate we need about Trident could well be lost. After all, the hostility to Labour will be ferocious.

    I’m not sure what Harry would suggest regarding party policy on Trident.

    John, however, is clear. He wants to keep Trident in the short term and initiate international negotiations to resolve the nuclear issues. My fear is that this would really mean we would be keeping Trident for the long term. Public opinion might, as he suggests, move against retention but then again, it might not.

    Whereas a referendum provides a much-needed focus that could help in widening and deepening people’s political understanding.

    Unless and until, the left tries to engage people in a living politics that gives them opportunity to become better informed and engaged – rather than being continually misled by the media – we will always be on the back foot. Instead, let’s take one step forward and call for Labour to commit itself to hold a referendum on Trident.

  10. Barry: On Trident my main position is that I want the matter to be fully debated within the Labour Party and a clear position to be determined at the coming annual conference. In the meantime efforts need to be taken to try to stop the actions of the current government from pre-empting our decision-making.

    The only argument which needs assessing which could delay us wishing to remove Trident is a modern varient of Nye Bevan’s “don’t go naked into the Conference Chamber”. But there would need to be shown that there are clear options open for trading in our and various others’ weapons. I am, of course, fully aware that this did not work in the past. And I raised this later problem at a fringe meeting at the last Labour Party Conference, but never received relevant replies from either Hilary Benn or Dianne Abbott.

    I am not, however, in favour of Labour going for a referendum on Trident – so that it can then end up in a position where the Party officlally caters for its members to be able to face both ways. If Labour MPs and others act against official Labour Party policy which has been democratically determined, then they should be expected to have to justify themselves for acting as “rebels”. The less democratic the Labour Party is, the easier such rebellions become. But even rebel Labour MPs needed to keep on board their CLPs and their voters under New Labour.

Leave Comment