With just 24 days to the polls, the public today got first sight of the Labour Party 2015 General Election manifesto titled ‘Britain can be better’.
The 86 page document from front to back covers all major policy areas including defence and security which are covered in the section ‘Standing up for Britain’s interests in Europe and the world’ starting on page 73.
On the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and nuclear weapons the document states:
‘We will conduct a Strategic Defence and Security Review in the first year of government, with an inclusive national debate on the security and defence challenges facing the country. It will be fiscally responsible and strategically driven, focusing on the obstacles that impede our Armed Forces from effective response to threats.’
‘Labour remains committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent. We will actively work to increase momentum on global multilateral disarmament efforts and negotiations, and look at further reductions in global stockpiles and the numbers of weapons.’
In comparison, Labour’s 2010 General Election manifesto stated:
‘A Strategic Defence Review will look at all areas of defence, but we will maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. We will fight for multilateral disarmament, working for a world free of nuclear weapons, in the Non Proliferation Treaty Review conference and beyond – combining support for civilian nuclear energy with concerted action against proliferation.’
The main difference being that Labour is committed to a minimum credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent. But is this really the minimum and credible? It has been previously argued that ‘a progressive nuclear weapons policy means rethinking current notions of ‘minimum deterrence’ by ending the commitment to nuclear forces on permanent alert.’ This could be done by adopting alternative postures including: ‘focused deterrence’, ‘sustained deterrence’, ‘responsive deterrence’, and ‘preserved deterrence’ as highlighted in the government’s Trident Alternatives Review. It is also worth noting separately, that in his speech last year at Labour’s Annual Conference, the Shadow Defence Secretary, Vernon Coaker announced that a Labour Government would put the Strategic Defence and Security Review on a statutory basis and “make it mandatory for the government to undertake one during the lifetime of every parliament”.
The overall 2015 policy position appears to be consistent with recent comments made by Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was reported in the media as saying renewing Trident did not necessarily mean having four boats:
“It may well mean four boats – that’s what our strategic defence review will look at, we will look to see if there are ways in which we can make savings in the procurement process.
“Of course, if I’m going to government, I’m going to challenge the strategic defence review to answer that question in the toughest way – that if it turns out the only way strategically to deliver continuous[ly] at sea is four boats, then absolutely we will have four boats.
“But my job is to ask those questions and, therefore, we’re going to challenge to see whether there’s any way you could do it with three rather than four.
“I think many of the experts think in the end not, but it’s a good thing for us to do, to ask the difficult questions.”
The comments by Mr Balls followed earlier suggestions in the year at the launch of Labour’s 2015 election campaign where it was reported that Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party, hinted that he may back downgrading Trident:
“I want to see multilateral disarmament. I’m not in favour of unilateral disarmament.
“What does that mean? That means we’ve got to have the least-cost deterrent we can have. That’s my philosophy. We will make sure any decisions we can take will have that least-cost. I wouldn’t say we should get rid of it unilaterally – that’s not my position.”
In The Labour Party Policy Guide 2015, the section on nuclear deterrent reads:
‘Labour wishes to see a world free of nuclear weapons. Previous Labour governments delivered significant progress towards this. However, in a world where others still possess nuclear weapons, and the future security landscape remains uncertain, unilaterally abandoning the nuclear deterrent will not make Britain or the world more secure. Instead, Labour believes that Britain should be leading international efforts for multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, while maintaining a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a Continuous-At-Sea Deterrent. It would require a clear body of evidence for us to change this belief.
A Labour Government will continue to take a leading role internationally to push the agenda of global anti-proliferation, seeking to advance ‘Global Zero’ with nuclear and non-nuclear states. Labour recognises the success of past international bans on weapons of mass destruction such as landmines, cluster munitions, chemical and biological weapons. We believe the current Government could be doing more to progress this agenda. That is why Labour wrote to the Prime Minister in November 2014, urging him to ensure that the UK was represented at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December 2014. Building on the action taken under previous Labour governments, we will look at further reductions in global stockpiles and the number of weapons. This would be done in line with our assessment of the global security landscape.’
When the new government takes control after the election it has immediate decisions to take about how it can play a positive role in avoiding disaster in New York before the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference winds up on 22nd May. This is the most important conference for the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime and it always falls during the UK’s General Election, so the country’s delegation is sent to the conference knowing it has to operate without a government for a period of time during the most crucial of negotiations. This conference provides a significant opportunity for a government under new leadership to demonstrate international leadership and take further steps forwards controlling the spread of the nuclear weapons.
A constructive announcement around renewed commitment to strengthen the ‘P5 process’ and to outline a credible contribution to a multilateral disarmament process would help a great deal but it will also be important to revisit the Trident project at this time by instigating a review of the options that remain as part of the SDSR, and consider how Britain can play that global leadership role in driving the multilateral disarmament agenda that is needed as badly today as it ever has been. The Vanguard-class submarines, which carry the Trident missiles, are due to be replaced from 2028. A final ‘Main Gate’ decision on whether to replace all four is at present due to be taken in 2016.
It will be interesting to see whether a Labour-led government can deliver commitments on a range of domestic as well as foreign nuclear weapon matters which satisfy both fiscal hawks and disarmament doves.
Varinder S. Bola works as a Parliamentary Officer to the Nuclear Weapons Policy Liaison Group. He leads on policy engagement activities with UK Parliamentarians across parties, civil servants and other decision makers in the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system renewal debate.