Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 8 January 2016

Will Trident be Corbyn’s undoing?

and why Trident is not like austerity

Not being a Labour Party person, I’ve not until now thought much about what Corbyn should do about the Trident issue. (For non-UK readers Trident is the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent.) On a personal level I have never heard a convincing argument for keeping Trident, and a great many bad ones, and it is a very large amount of money. So unless anyone convinces me otherwise I would happily votes against keeping it.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is firmly against Trident, but current Labour policy and many Labour MPs strongly hold the opposite view. It is a far more fundamental issue for Labour MPs, with deep roots, than any debate about Syria. (Postscript: this LRB article by David Runciman is well worth reading.) This post/article from Steve Richards of The Independent, coupled with the recent Labour reshuffle, suggests it may define Corbyn’s leadership.

I have written in the past that Corbyn’s election by Labour Party members was in good part a response to the inept drift in policy that the other three candidates were associated with. (As Jolyon Maugham says, it may be unfair on the non-Corbyn candidates that they were so clearly associated with this failed strategy, but elections are often unfair in this sense.) I suspect the many Labour MPs and commentators who think that Corbyn got elected because most party members prefer purity to government do this because they do not want to admit how hopeless their own electoral strategy clearly was. I have talked about this before, but Chris Dillow does it better.

The implications are that if in the few years a rival candidate emerges who seriously looked like they could beat the Conservatives while remaining close to the policies of the Blair/Brown government (minus Iraq and City regulation, obviously), I suspect they could easily win against Corbyn if the Corbyn/McDonnell combination looked like it was both incompetent and unable to lead more than a small number of their MPs.

That is why I have also written that Corbyn/McDonnell are likely to play a long game: to adopt for now policies that the majority of Labour MPs can unite behind, and try and gradually change the platform once they had shown that they could competently lead this majority (which means after 2020). As a poll disaster could still ruin this strategy, what they should also do (but I have always doubted that they would do) is focus on improving the Labour party’s spin machine. (Notions that Corbyn would automatically galvanise disenfranchised working class voters seem problematic for various reasons. The fact that almost no one in the media supports the current Labour leadership means that more, not less, energy has to be put into getting their message across.)

You can see why trying to change the Trident policy might go against that strategy of playing a long game. Damian Carrington, who has done more work exposing the government’s flooding débâcle than anyone I know, recently tweeted: “when @UKLabour shd have been holding Cameron to account for huge failings on #flooding, they put on a late Christmas pantomime”. It is pointless to say it is not his fault but that of the Labour MPs and media, because these are facts that Corbyn has to work with.

Please note that I’m not arguing that Trident might be better left as a battle to be fought on another day because most voters want to keep Trident. Voters views on the issue of Trident are not as clear as some Trident supporters like to pretend, and any poll that does not make the opportunity cost clear in any question (how many less teachers, nurses …) is meaningless anyway. The Conservatives are going to argue that Labour threaten national security whatever Labour’s actual policy is as long as Corbyn is leader. I am arguing that anything that breaks the long game strategy is not in Corbyn’s own interest. Remember also that Corbyn’s choice will have no influence on what actually happens to Trident before 2020, because the Conservatives will win any vote in parliament.

Now someone might say I’m being inconsistent here, because I would not apply the same argument to the macroeconomic policy of austerity. Is this because I have a deep professional interest in macroeconomics but not in defence policy? It is a good point, but my response would be this. If Labour under any leader agreed to follow Osborne’s fiscal charter, they would be going down exactly the same road as the parliamentary party seemed to heading before Corbyn was elected - the road to nowhere. Or as John Harris put it, they were “in danger of shrinking into meaninglessness”. Their ambivalence on the austerity issue under Miliband/Balls (having a sensible policy but trying not to talk about it) helped lose them the election for a variety of reasons I have talked about before.1 Austerity, not Trident, was a key reason that Corbyn was elected. 

The Trident issue may therefore be critical for Corbyn. He would obviously like to campaign in 2020 on a manifesto that clearly pledges to scrap it, and there may even be electoral advantages in clarity. But if in doing so he alienates so many Labour MPs that the only image in voters minds for the next few years is Labour disunity, he may lose his support among the majority of party members, who actually meet those voters on the doorstep. Compared to getting this choice right, fixing his economic policy right must seem easy.


1 My previous posts have focused on Labour’s huge tactical failure: the only area before the election where the the Conservatives had real strength was economic competence, and how this was based on a false narrative that Labour failed to challenge. I have briefly talked about the demise of the European left more generally in terms of ‘political capture’ by the dominant elite’s narrative: some more articulate thoughts are discussed by Henry Farrell here.   

30 comments:

  1. Trident would appear to be the most expensive solution to the simple issue of having a Nuclear deterrent (although unclear who it deters!). I am surprised it has to be a full replacement for some people but as with all PFIs/Infra projects these days one is left to muse at what a 100+ Bn will buy MPs backing it -> local arms employer contracts & a lucrative lecture tour being main pay offs?

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    1. I suppose it's just whether you think Great Britain should have a nuclear arsenal that's not dependent on US or NATO goodwill. If you don't, that's fine. If you do, then submarines are the best way to do it.

      The problem for Great Britain is that it's just too close to any countries that might want to hit it with nuclear weapons to base them at home. You either need submarines or negotiated basing rights offshore, and the latter is much more politically difficult because those sites would then become prime targets in a nuclear conflict.

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  2. Isn't the issue of the cost of Trident a bit of a red herring? Not in the sense of the efficiency of Trident (in recent years only the Lib Dems habe askes if we can have a cheaper nuclear deterrent rather than the zero sum game of Trident yes or no, which actually means unilateralism or trident). Rather, in that as a Nato member we are required to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Even with existing spend on the deterrent Osborne had to resort to some serious sleights of hand to get to the 2%. So, even if it were abolished the savings accrued would not be spent on nurses and teachers (as Emily Thornberry implied) but would have to be spent elsewhere in the defence budget to fulfil our alliance obligations, and perhaps bolster deterrence through investment in conventional arms?

    It is also an interesting challenge for the SNP who want to remain in Nato but also pay for "bairns not bombs". The implications of their position suggests that the bairns might not see much of the money saved as it would still have to be spent on (non atomic) bombs.

    In essence, abolishing Trident wouldn't suddenly givenus a 100 billion windfall for nice things as some of the populist politicos suggest. Now, that's not an argument for Trident, but it is a plea for proper debate about it.

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    1. Read this http://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-calls-for-rise-in-defence-spending-by-alliance-members-1434978193

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  3. Trident is a nonsensical solution to a hypothetical question. It's a pathetic call to death. Naturally, there are many idiots, who draped in righteous emblems, would avail us of this option and be prepared to press the button (or, more accurately, order a submarine captain to do so on behalf of a grateful nation). Quite how nonexistence might trump existence is, of course, conveniently ignored. Hope for these people is based on a temporal dip into absurdity from which it is well nigh impossible to emerge.

    The best remedy for Corbyn's dilemma - and one which would spike the Tories' preposterous and hubristic claim to be the sole guardians of Britain's defence - would be to put the issue to the people in a referendum. This isn't going to happen. The other trick about Trident - regardless of who is in power - is that those who have most to lose will have little or no say in any decision about their future hypothetical or otherwise.

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  4. I remember a session on nuclear disarmament at a Tribune conference, back when Polaris was about to be replaced with Trident. A couple of speakers made more or less impassioned anti-nuclear statements, then a senior union rep - the only man on the platform wearing a suit - gave what he said was the economic case against Trident. Which was that any replacement for Polaris we did get wouldn't last forever, and everyone agreed that we'd never be able to afford to replace Trident when the time came, so we might as well get out now and cut our losses. It wasn't inspiring, but it did make sense - or so we thought at the time. I wonder where he is now.

    I was in the peace movement in the 80s & have recently joined Labour (for the first time). I feel a bit like Rip van Winkle; there seems to have been a generation of pro-nuclear Labour members (and MPs) while I wasn't looking. Since they're there, and some of them will certainly make trouble if they're crossed, throwing them a bone does seem like good politics (some bone!). But I wonder how much of Corbyn's appeal rests on consistency and integrity, both directly and mediated through the appeal of having a mass of motivated supporters. Throwing away that advantage (or those advantages) isn't to be done lightly.

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  5. Hi Simon,

    I like this blog for many reasons, but one is its relatively plain speaking. "Nuclear deterrent" is a euphemism, albeit one that pretty much the entire press repeats. Trident is the name for Britain's nuclear weapons. They can be used as a deterrent, but they don't have to be. To see how odd it looks to use the phrase "nuclear deterrent", imagine that reports on other countries used the phrase - " China's nuclear deterrent " or "Pakistan's nuclear deterrent," or even "North Korea's nuclear deterrent".

    Much better to just call them weapons, I think.

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  6. "I have never heard a convincing argument for keeping Trident"

    Imagine we're not allied with NATO or the United States or any nuclear power. However we are still hostile to the same nations as today. Would you want a nuclear deterrent in this situation - given so many other hostile nations posses nuclear capabilities?

    If the answer is yes, then you have a classic free rider problem. If we want a nuclear deterrent it's unethical to free ride off of the United States' & other NATO countries protection. Things like this probably led to a ridiculously bloated US defence budget relative to other western nations in the first place.

    If you answer 'no', then you have to endorse the prospect of a world where only countries like Russia, Iran, North Korea etc.. have nuclear weapons while western nations have no matching armaments (or find some way to show that the west removing their nuclear stockpiles would somehow lead to hostile nations to do the same).

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    1. I think this is a strong argument, but aren't there cheaper options like for example paying the USA a fee for nuclear deterrent services that would be cheaper than duplicating launch capabilities etc.?

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  7. I think you are being unkind by saying Corbyn won "by default". A default win would not have inspired so many new members (or supporters) to join. Further, Liz Kendall at least articulated as much of a policy programme as Corbyn - it's just the Labour membership didn't want what she was offering.

    And I also disagree with the thrust of your argument - that it is in Corbyn's best interest to let the Trident issue lie for now. The only thing stopping Labour MPs deposing Corbyn at the moment is the fact he is overwhelmingly popular with the Labour selectorate. Part of the reason for this is that he is seen as authentic, and moral. And the reason he opposes both austerity and Trident is because he clearly believes that both are immoral. Compromising on his authenticity could undermine him among the membership, and risk removing the only barrier to being deposed (you only have to look at how Kinnock was ridiculed for reversing his unilateralist position to see what might happen here). Imagine how ridiculous it would look if he whipped his MPs to support Trident. Even if he gives a free vote, unless he does it under duress (as with Syria) it will look very much at odds with his record. It is partly true that he won due to his opposition to austerity, but he also won due to his anti-imperialist/pacifist foreign policy stance (think about the continuing anger over Iraq). Opposing Trident is part of that for him.

    Further, suppose that the primary objective of Corbyn (or those around him) is first to change the Labour Party (to make it more left wing) and only then to win a General Election. Then internal fights within the PLP on Syria and Trident are very useful for the leadership in tacitly signalling to the various CLPs which MPs should be deselected.

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    1. I certainly think his style was important, but in a way that is just a manifestation of the problem ABCs had. They had learnt how to talk in platitudes to avoid making gaffes in front of the TV, and forgotten how to talk from the heart. They began to learn during the campaign, but by then it was too late.

      But I think your central premise is wrong. Most Labour party members want to be in government.

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    2. Corey Robin in 'Yours, Mine, but Not Ours' (2012) published in Jacobin, link from his website, is a historical reassessment of the idea of 'security' as put forward by liberalism since the early modern era, and the way that liberalism has put 'security' as a body of thought which exists outside political discourse.

      If you listen to the resignation of the Labour MP on the Daily Politics he talks exactly about 'security' being bigger than party politics.

      As Robin says to finish his essay:

      "Unlike religion, morality, and politics, in other words, security offered [to liberals] the basis for an uncontroversial exercise of coercive state power. As we have seen, this assumption has not been borne out by reality. But that failure has not stopped liberals from arguing, as the saying goes, that politics stops at the water’s edge. And so when they have tried to chastise conservatives for using security for political ends (even though they do the same thing themselves), they have often found themselves, particularly since the Reagan years, hopelessly outgunned. Having endorsed — indeed, invented — the idea that security is not, properly speaking, a subject of and for the political arena, liberals cannot possibly hope to beat their opponents at a game which their chief theoreticians claim does not even exist."

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  8. "Not being a Labour Party person ..."
    No, just a fellow traveller.

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    1. Oh dear, if you have to ask...

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    2. SWL: Don't feed the trolls. Engage with those who make engage in the discussion on an adult level rather than wasting your time. Another great post by the way.
      Ps. On a different issue I wonder if you read Andrew Sentence last weekend discussing UK and EZ macro economic performance since 2010, and the various factors which impacted on growth. He did so without once mentioning austerity and its impact, which is quite a feat in itself I thought!

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    3. Mainly Macro9 January 2016 at 02:13

      "Why?"

      Because you are always busying your head how Labour could win the next election-

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    4. But that is where you are wrong. I'm concerned that the Conservatives - assuming current policies continue - lose the next election. I have no particular attachment to Labour.

      However you have to admit what has happened this year has been interesting, so it is hard not to write about it. Lets look forward to similar splits within the Conservatives, and I will happily write about that too.

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    5. Excellent joke, and, as such,not to be taken seriously.

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    6. SWL is a leftie if I ever saw one.

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    7. That's one very hungry little troll if ever I saw one.

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  9. .
    2 questions:

    1) Has there been a look at what the multiplier is of Trident spending? Weaponized Keynsianism is still anti-austerity. The mere psychology of Trident may also have a multiplier and that is a component that should have been evaluated as well.

    2) Corbyn was, I think, the first major party candidate to propose central bank funding of infrastructure. This is an idea that is finally getting traction with more reputable economists and Corbyn did a service to get it it out there. Regardless of whatever else you feel about Corbyn, his support on that issue is very helpful.
    .

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  10. Would a good compromise be to keep the missiles but fill them with sawdust? After all, the story is that by having them they will never need to be used.
    Michael G

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  11. "Corbyn/McDonnell are likely to play a long game: to adopt for now policies that the majority of Labour MPs can unite behind, and try and gradually change the platform once they had shown that they could competently lead this majority (which means after 2020)."

    This is quite wrong.

    The Corbyn/McDonnell/Milne programme is to reverse the changes brought in by Neil Kinnock and to transform the Labour party into a party of the hard left. To do this they need cover for now, which is provided by those who are not of the Hard Left but are (usually naively) prepared to work with them. (Yvette Cooper's judgment not to do so appears vindicated to me). What the Labour policy programme here and now is is irrelevant in relation to domestic policy (that can be changed in a moment). What is really important to them is that they take control of the party machinery. This mainly involves giving power to the members (who are well to the left of MPs). As with the Bennite reforms of the 80s, this will be justified by the call for greater democracy.

    See


    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/trident-jeremy-corbyn-hopes-to-alter-labours-stance-on-nuclear-weapons-by-stripping-shadow-cabinet-a6804376.html

    I too think Trident should not be replaced (the issue is not about scrapping it as you rather oddly seem to think). I also think it would be electoral suicide for Labour to adopt that policy. Not that it matters much. Labour lost the 2020 election on 12 September 2015.

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    1. And the point I'm making here, which as ever you ignore in favour of repeating yourself, is that if he does what he says 'he' will lose the next leadership election. So it will not work as a strategy.

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    2. I think you have completely failed to understand the nature of the current Labour party membership. Go along to your local CLP and see. It really isn't like, say, 1995 any longer. The best meetings for you to attend are here

      http://www.oxfordlabour.org.uk/upcoming_branch_agms

      Don't go to the North Oxford one: it is unrepresentative. Try East Oxford or Leys.

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  12. What you also fail to mention in the above criticism of the alternative candidates to Corbyn, is that the economic policy platform Corbyn stood on has been completely abandoned by him. Rightly, of course, because it made no sense whatsoever. So we hear no more about the foolish "People's QE" and the laughable claims about Corporate Welfare and the Tax Gap have been dropped.

    It is one thing to fail to win an election by proposing policies that were rather bland and uninspiring.

    It is quite another to win an election by promising that there were lots of free lunches that were there to be eaten, only then to quickly abandon such nonsense once the election has been won.

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  13. When you have to argue that a party leader, who runs on sincerity, should also run on policies he does not believe in, so that some day in the undefined future he might get to run on policies he does believe in, what kind of party leader are you talking about?

    Is Corbyn supposed to be some sort of sleeper agent left over from the Cold War?

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  14. With all due respect, Simon, you're getting a long way away from your area of expertise here. When you say "any poll that does not make the opportunity cost clear in any question (how many less teachers, nurses …) is meaningless anyway", you're literally saying that only an overt push poll can possibly be valid, which is absurd. A supporter of Trident could equally well argue that the preceding question should highlight the arguments in favour of Trident, which would produce results that would be equally unreflective of public opinion. Loading a survey with leading questions is a good way of producing meaningless data that is only good for telling you what you want to hear rather than being reflective of reality.

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  15. "Voters views on the issue of Trident are not as clear as some Trident supporters like to pretend, and any poll that does not make the opportunity cost clear in any question (how many less teachers, nurses …) is meaningless anyway."

    Trident workers can be transformed into nurses? WTF? Take your push polls and go away.

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