Scottish Labour’s priority should be holding SNP policies to account, not fruitless debate on defence
The suggestion that Scottish Labour might be moving towards a position of opposition to the Trident nuclear weapons system will be enthusiastically welcomed by many party members.
New members, attracted by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK party, are especially exercised by the issue and many will want to play their part in seeing to it that Scottish Labour’s policy changes.
Superficially, this might have some appeal as a political strategy. The SNP, after all, makes a great deal of its opposition to Trident. Perhaps if Scottish Labour adopted the same position, voters would return from the nationalist fold.
But there would be dangers for Labour in going through with this policy U-turn.
Would those voters who cherish the SNP’s “no nukes” stance accept a change of position by Labour as sincere or would they dismiss it as an act of desperation by a party running out of ideas? Labour could give up a perfectly defendable principle and receive little but derision in return. That’s quite a gamble to take.
And could Labour withstand a brutal internal battle over defence policy? The matter of nuclear weapons was not much discussed at the party’s UK conference. This was a state of affairs that suited both moderates and the so-called Corbynistas. Nobody relished the prospect of a damaging debate that might further expose divisions in the party.
And if debate over Trident was a bad idea for the UK party, so it is for the Scottish one.
For one rather significant thing, Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale is a multilateralist. A policy in favour of unilateralism would weaken her.
The Labour Party ditched its unilateral approach to disarmament in the late 1980s, when it became clear that the policy was unpopular with voters.
There is little to suggest that voters have changed their position much on the matter of the nuclear deterrent in the intervening years.
Labour factions can now be expected to brief and counter-brief about this issue, diverting their attention from more important matters.
For the first time in recent memory, the Scottish Government is looking vulnerable across a range of policies. The single police force continues to attract controversy, there are ongoing concerns about standards of literacy and numeracy, and last week an Audit Scotland report showed the NHS in crisis and heading for breakdown unless investment was forthcoming. These are the issues that Labour should be concentrating on. Voters will thank the party more for acting as a serious and dedicated opposition than for carrying out endless internal debates.
If the trade union Unite presses ahead with an attempt to force a change of policy position, Scottish Labour will become bogged down in a debate that ignores the electorate.
The election of Corbyn as leader of the opposition was always going to impact on the party’s defence policy. A long-time opponent of Trident, he is at odds with both the parliamentary Labour Party and the majority of the public.
Dugdale could do without the gift from Unite of a debate over Trident. There is absolutely nothing for Labour to gain by having such a discussion now. The only beneficiaries will be the SNP, who will be able to proclaim their long-standing opposition to the renewal of Trident while avoiding scrutiny of those areas where the Scottish Government is currently facing difficulty over living up to its claims.
Opposition to nuclear weapons is a perfectly honourable position to take but it is not a political priority for a party that has been defeated on a social justice agenda.
If Labour prioritises a debate on Trident over scrutiny of the Scottish Government then it will have made a foolish mistake.