“I may be no expert, as a 16-year-old boy, but if you can find £100 billion to kill people you can find it for jobs. It’s a no brainer”. So said Labour’s latest rising star, Christoper Rimicans, who makes the SNP’s Mhairi Black look positively aged. He received a standing ovation from the Labour conference for his speech against renewing Trident.
Later, conference voted against the renewal of the Faslane-based nuclear weapons system by a massive 70 per cent to 30 per cent, ending nearly three decades of acquiescence on weapons of mass destruction by Labour.
Yes, there was a vote on Trident at the Scottish conference in 1998 – also against. But that wasn’t a real debate and it had no policy significance. Sunday’s vote is now party policy and will go into Labour’s 2016 Scottish manifesto, unless that is vetoed by the leader which it won’t be.
Kezia Dugdale may be a supporter of Trident renewal, but she has also made good on her promise that the Scottish Labour conference is a policy making forum again. It was a very good debate too on both sides and showed that difference needn’t be divisive.
Parties, including the SNP, have been far too fearful of argument. Yet today’s savvy voters are turned off by stage-managed conferences which celebrate leadership. They want authenticity above all.
The SNP still dismissed Sunday’s vote as “meaningless” electoral window dressing. Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that the vote by the Scottish Labour party has no impact in Westminster. But you could equally say the SNP has no impact on Westminster.
The truth is that this vote will make a difference, Even though Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, Maria Eagle, has reaffirmed that the policy on Trident is a UK matter. It will certainly strengthen the hand of Jeremy Corbyn against his pro-nuclear shadow cabinet. More importantly, it will ensure the hundreds of thousands of new Labour members, most of whom are anti-Trident, will put renewed pressure on the party in England to change from its default, pro-nuclear posture.
Labour makes policy in regional and national policy forums. In the past, the leadership has used these forums to defuse controversial issues and ensure that the party doesn’t veer to the left. But the National Policy Forum may not be so easy to control in future now that the Scottish party is refusing to refrain policy votes on “reserved” issues.
Those Labour shadow cabinet figures like Andy Burnham, who’ve threatened to resign if the party turns against Trident, are in a bind. For the first time since the early 1980s, both the leader of the party and the grassroots – and they don’t get more rootsier than than the Scots – are united in opposition to renewal.
The SNP will almost certainly use its opposition day in Westminster later this month to debate Trident. That will begin to test opinion among Labour MPs. The final “gateway” vote on renewing the Trident system comes next year.
Labour MPs will be acutely aware they are essentially siding with the Conservatives against their own party membership and their own leader. That’s an uncomfortable place to be, as Better Together confirmed. They’ll start to wonder – as Scottish Labour members have – why they’re expected to support this moral abomination.
Most Labour MPs say they are “multilateral” nuclear disarmers. But here is a strong multilateralist argument against renewal: which is that upgrading Trident is in defiance of the spirit of the Nuclear Non Proliferation treaty which the UK has signed. You can’t “build down” nuclear weapons by creating new ones.
There are also some Conservative MPs, like Crispin Blunt, who oppose Trident on the grounds that the money might be better spent giving soldiers weapons that can actually be used, rather than an anachronistic national virility symbol. They keep a low profile, admittedly. But they reflect a current of opinion in the British armed forces.
And make no mistake, the Labour vote will be noticed in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence. The chiefs of staff will certainly notice this weapons system is now rejected, overwhelmingly, by the two dominant parties in Scotland: Labour and the SNP.
The chances are that Trident will still get the go-ahead, of course. But Sunday’s vote is not meaningless. It is a huge achievement for CND and shows the Scottish Labour Party has rediscovered its soul.
From Herald, 1/11/15