Labour Party defence in the debate on Trident

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This week the Labour Party conference continues in Manchester. Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy spoke this morning with a focus on defence spending and support for service personnel. However, the future of Britain’s nuclear arsenal hit the headlines in this year’s conference season, with last week’s headlines reporting comments from recent Defence Minister Nick Harvey about the government’s review on Trident alternatives at the Liberal Democrats conference. He hinted that the review may include the option of a significant downgrading of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, moving the UK down the nuclear ladder. He suggested the possibility of a delayed-launch model, which would be stored until needed, with the ability to be deployed at sea within weeks or months.

The Labour Party is undergoing an internal review process on their defence posture which currently excludes the nuclear angle, but when they come to look again at their policy after the government’s review on the alternatives and BASIC’s Trident Commission reports, their reaction could be decisive for the final decision on the future of the Trident nuclear system, to be taken in 2016 (after the next General Election expected in May 2015).

The replacement of Trident is one of the most significant areas where the members of the coalition government are split, with the Conservatives holding firmly to a posture of like-for-like replacement of the current system and the Liberal Democrats wanting to seriously consider alternatives before a final decision. The Conservatives agreed to a government review on alternatives as part of the coalition agreement. This review may helpfully have kicked the issue into touch for the last two years, but it is likely to highlight the divisions between the governing parties when it is published. After last month’s reshuffle, the review is now likely to be discussed in Cabinet in spring 2013.

The Labour Party will want to avoid being out-flanked by the Liberal Democrats on an issue where public opinion may be on the move, but equally they will be sensitive to the possibility of being seen as ‘weak’ on defence. The last Labour Government in 2007 decided to pursue a like-for-like replacement and in its 2010 manifesto committed to renewing Trident, while also supporting multilateral disarmament. But increasing costs in a time of austerity when much of the public perceives little need to maintain a nuclear deterrent could yet mean the Party having another think. It is unlikely that we will hear any hint this year of such a review, but pressure may build in 2013.