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John Woodcock: Trident debate will create a deep split within Labour

Elizabeth Bates | PoliticsHome

5 min read Partner content

Barrow and Furness MP, John Woodcock, tells PoliticsHome why Labour’s focus on nuclear disarmament is futile and urges the new shadow defence secretary to abandon conspiracy theories.  

Westminster observers have often noted the unfashionable appearance of the Labour leader, and with the reintroduction of nuclear disarmament to mainstream political debate, many are now lamenting Corbyn’s political regression as well.    

This is certainly the view of Barrow-in-Furness MP, John Woodcock, who sees the discussion on the future of the Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Trident, as outdated and divisive.

He tells PoliticsHome: “If Jeremy presses ahead with this you will have a very deep split between the people around him who are determined to use their opportunity of power, not first of all to try to push for real and achievable lasting social change, but to pursue this issue which was last ascendant in the Labour Party in the 1980s and the days of CND.

“So, you’ll have those on one side and on the other you will have many, many Labour MPs who believe that the retention of the deterrent is vital for Britain.”

The Labour backbencher is responding to an earlier interview in which Corbyn made the case for unilateral nuclear disarmament through the scrapping of Trident, a cause to which he has been committed throughout his political career, but has largely fallen off the agenda in recent years.

Having brought it shuddering back into life, the Labour leader now faces mounting criticism from within his own ranks.

However, with little chance of changing Government policy on the issue, Woodcock fears that this internal struggle will achieve nothing more than to deepen current divisions.

He continues: “What struck me most about the interview was Jeremy’s clear and obvious focus on the issue of trying to change the Labour Party’s policy on the nuclear deterrent.

“You’re just really hit by the depressing futility of engulfing the party in this fight, given that there are so many things that the Government is doing right now that is impacting on people’s lives…

“Yet what Jeremy and the people around him want to focus on is a policy, that potentially in weeks maybe months but certainly over the course of this year, is going to be a dead issue. Because we are going to have the vote on taking the renewal of the ageing Vanguard-class submarines past the point of no return.

“That vote is going to happen, there is a cast iron majority for it and that’s going to take the project, which has been in gestation since the last labour government in 2007, past the point of no return…

"At a time when there are already troubling divisions in our party, we will split the Labour party on a binary issue down the middle."

He is also clearly concerned that, despite protestations to the contrary, the leadership is becoming increasingly intolerant of differing views and dissenting voices.

He adds: "You worry that that process is going to be run in the way that the vote over Syria was, that resulted in several of the people around Jeremy being treated like pariahs; Labour MPs who exercised their own judgement on a free vote.”

With the party’s policy review on the subject looming, Woodcock is cautiously optimistic that the replacement of Maria Eagle with Emily Thornberry does not mean its outcome is predetermined, and will endeavour to play a substantive role in changing the new shadow defence secretary’s views.

“When I spoke to Emily Thornberry last week and congratulated her on the job, she promised me she was going to look at this with an open mind and look afresh at it.

“I will take her at her word on that and very happily go through it with her, as I have done with many shadow secretaries of state now…

“I hope in doing that Emily will very quickly shed her past stated unilateralism, but also this conspiracy theory that there is no operational independence. That view, which she stated quite recently, doesn’t do her any credit.

“Unless she can get time to read into this and understand why this is a myth it doesn’t do the party any credit to have a shadow defence secretary that holds that view, because it is just wrong and there are many many people who can take her through why that is.”

His optimism stops short, however, on the impartiality of the review’s other key player, Ken Livingstone.

He says: “Ken Livingston is letting down his friend [Jeremy Corbyn] very badly, with the role of agent provocateur that he is embracing with Trident and on so many other things. Given the way that he has behaved in recent weeks and months I am absolutely sure that his own mind is made up.”

The Barrow-in-Furness MPs has long been vocal on the nuclear deterrent, not least because it supports thousands of jobs in his own constituency.

The idea, touted by Corbyn and other supporters of disarmament, that those jobs could be easily replaced, is something which he dismisses.

“It’s disappointing to hear people repeating this idea that an alternative could be found, [and say] ‘people in Barrow could do something else,’ because there is no alternative to these jobs.

“It would profoundly damage the economy not only of Barrow-in-Furness but many areas of the country.

“Whether people intend to be insulting or not it is insulting that people who are against this peddle this false hope that you could replace those jobs with something else. There is no alternative… Live in the real world.”

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