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If Miliband Really Wants to Look Tough, He Should Commit to Scrapping Trident

16/04/2015 09:48 BST | Updated 15/06/2015 10:59 BST

Chuka Umunna has become the latest politician to abandon his opposition to Trident as he seeks political respectability. The 36-year-old Shadow Justice Secretary, who only five years ago was calling for Trident to be scrapped, has been pleading his enthusiasm for Trident since the Daily Telegraph carried a report on Friday about his former views.

Umunna follows the well-worn path of Labour politicians who have given up anti-nuclear views as the prospect of power comes in sight: Neil Kinnock, John Prescott, Margaret Becket - the list goes on. Even Tony Blair was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the eighties.

They give the impression that in mainstream politics, principles are something you are expected to grow out of, like children's clothes or an unhealthy level of enthusiasm for One Direction. This is despite the ongoing evidence that the public want to see more politicians prepared to stick up for their values.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon must have felt he was on safe ground when he accused Labour of being prepared to bargain away Trident in a deal with the Scottish National Party. "Defence" issues are natural Tory territory, but Fallon may well be making inaccurate assumptions about public opinion. Any journalist or politician who checks the opinion polls will see that they consistently show the majority of the public to be opposed to Trident renewal, especially at a time of swingeing cuts to public services.

Military commanders, it is said, are often fighting the last war rather than the current one. Politicians are no different. Labour's cowering response to the Tory accusations about Trident makes clear that the party is still living in fear of the 1980s, when support for nuclear disarmament was blamed for Labour's election defeats. So let's consider what's changed.

A good many voters going to the polls this year - those aged under 32 - were not even born at the time of the Conservative landslide in 1983. Many more of us - those between 32 and 50 - were born but not old enough to vote. The very youngest people who will vote on 7 May were born in the week after Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997.

I'm not for a moment dismissing voters over 50. They make up a sizeable chunk of the electorate. But many of them have moved on from the 1980s, whereas the Tory and Labour leaderships seem not to have done so. The Conservatives think they can gain support by banging out about "defence". Labour are desperately pleading that they too will retain Trident and defend the UK.

Instead, Ed Miliband could have stood up to Fallon and suggested that he was prepared to review Trident, or to give his MPs a free vote on it. Umunna could have refrained from presenting his apparently Damascene conversion on the road to polling day. Instead, they let the Tory media call the shots.

Despite Ed Miliband's position, a national survey recently found that three quarters of Labour candidates oppose Trident. The real question is whether three quarters of them have backbones.

A minority Labour government could well do a deal that would involve the SNP backing them on certain issues but not Trident. Labour could then rely on Tory votes to get Trident renewal approved when it comes before Parliament in 2016.

Alternatively, Labour MPs could vote with their convictions, recognising that political maturity is about applying your principles, not abandoning them.

Better still, Ed Miliband could demonstrate the bravery and conviction that would be more impressive to many voters than following the agenda of the Tory press. Two years ago, he showed real guts by leading Labour MPs in voting no to bombing Syria.

Instead of mouthing the expected words about "Britain's independent nuclear deterrent", he could stand up and speak the truth: that Trident is not British - the missiles are loaned from the US. It's not independent - it relies on US technical support. It will not deter most of the major security threats to the British people, such as suicide bombers on the tube or the devastation threatened by runaway climate change.

Miliband and Umunna are backing Tory calls to spend £100bn renewing Trident at a time when the Coalition's cuts have sent poverty spiralling in Britain. For thousands queuing at food banks, for disabled people whose benefits have been snatched away, for workers struggling to make ends meet on zero-hour contracts, life is desperately insecure. It is not the Russian or Iranian government that is attacking them but the British government. Renewing Trident will do nothing to help them - and the Labour Party needs to say so.