Labour's Trident Policy is a Cold War Relic: Time for a Serious Reappraisal

28/09/2012 14:08 BST | Updated 28/11/2012 10:12 GMT

There can be little doubt that Britain's nuclear weapons will be a hot topic in the next general election campaign. With a decision on whether or not to replace Trident previously expected in this parliament, one of the coalition government's early decisions was to push this controversial choice back to 2016.

Replacing Trident is one of the few remaining policies where the Lib Dems haven't knuckled under to the Tories - they retain a position of considering other nuclear alternatives to Trident. Indeed, undercurrents at the recent Lib Dem conference suggest that members are likely to fight for a full anti-nuclear position going into the general election, rather than rowing back to please their Tory partners.

Of course it would be good if the Lib Dems enter the pre-election scrum with a solid anti-nuclear policy. But of most interest, is what the Labour Party will do. Currently riding high with a ten point lead over the Conservatives, Labour may well be in a position to form the next government. What nuclear policy will they bring to the table?

The last couple of decades have seen Labour pushing itself forward as the defender of the so-called 'deterrent', with its faulty folk-memory associating the electoral defeats of the 1980s with its then policy of nuclear disarmament. The late Robin Cook, who championed the dream of an ethical foreign policy for Labour, saw beyond these limits, but Tony Blair and Des Browne saw off that danger with the Labour war on Iraq in 2003 and the pushing of an initial pro-Trident replacement vote through parliament in 2006.

That false correlation between disarmament and weakness has hung over into the Miliband leadership. When the coalition government announced the Trident decision delay, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy was first off the starting blocks attacking the government for weakness on defence. This old times approach was thoroughly out of sync with the new thinking promised by the Miliband leadership. And also out of line with what Ed himself said during his leadership campaign - that there should be a strategic review of Britain's possession of nuclear weapons: we need to look at whether we actually need them for our security or not.

That was a step forward for Labour. But what has happened since? When pressed recently on Trident replacement, Murphy said that he wasn't wedded to any particular system, but really we need some more sophisticated thinking than that. Labour's recent National Policy Forum document has indicated that there will be discussion on its Trident position after the government's Trident Alternatives Review has reported - likely to be early next year. More discussion will be good, but there are significant weaknesses in this approach. The Trident Alternatives Review is designed to enable the Lib Dems to look at nuclear alternatives to Trident. It is not considering the non-nuclear option.

It is wrong that Labour's debate should be constrained in this way - that its policy should ultimately be shaped by the Lib Dem line. Labour needs to consider the non-nuclear option in its internal policy debates.

There are many good reasons why Labour should opt for nuclear disarmament, legal and moral foremost amongst them. But the reality is, with a significant majority of the population opposed to Trident, nuclear disarmament must be recognised as a vote winner not a vote loser. So opposing Trident can help put Labour back in power.

But above all, when it is back in government, without the dead end burden of nuclear weapons spending, it will have billions more to invest in jobs, sustainable growth and a decent society for all. That is a prize worth fighting for.