Monday, March 12, 2007

Trident crisis for New Labour

With two resignations, several more expected (Stephen Pound and Rosie Winterton are said to be on their way out, as are a number of PPS's) and a large backbench revolt expected over the issue, you might expect that the government is in for a hard time when it comes to the vote over Trident. A BBC survey of backbenchers has found that of 101 respondents, 64 were against the policy. This probably overstates the backbench opposition, but it can be taken as substantial. New Labour will not lose the vote, because the Tories are backing the policy (getting up America's arse and staying there is more important to the Conservatives than beating the government), but the fact that a large number of fairly moderate PLP members are probably going to vote against the government raises the prospect of stormy weather. A Labour government relying on the Right for political support is not new, either for this or past administrations, but it compounds a crisis in the Labour Party elite, originating from the invasion of Iraq. Many traditionally right-wing Labour MPs were quite happy to accept America's nuclear shield when it was a question of defeating the Soviet Union, but are much less happy to adapt to a new aggressive US posture which involves blurring the strict demarcation between conventional and nuclear weapons.

Though the crisis is real, it is unlikely to impact substantially on the leadership race, for a few reasons. On the one hand, David Miliband has little chance of seriously splitting the right-wing vote and may well make way for Brown in the end, if he even decides to stand. On the other, Michael Meacher's candidature does look like it has split the left vote, taking a sizeable portion of support away from John McDonnell. And that's not from a good starting point either: in polls of Labour party members and trade unionists, only 6% supported Meacher and the same percentages backed McDonnell. Brown would win it by a mile on the basis of those findings. Among unions, the support for McDonnell is around 10%, and that for Meacher 13%. Jon Cruddas stands only a slightly better chance of becoming deputy Prime Minister, with 11% of members and unionists backing him with combined first and second preference votes. To be fair, none of the left candidates barring Michael Meacher has had much exposure, but the Labour Party as currently composed is not likely to move sharply in a different direction without considerably more tumult.

However, a string of senior resignations and a strong backbench revolt will compound the following problems: the Labour Party membership in 2005 was well under half its level in 1997; Labour is experiencing serious financial difficulties; it is now engulfed in a huge legal crisis on account of allegations that it has tried to solve its financial difficulties by bribing potential donors with those dubious 'honours'; it is at odds with the public on most of its substantial policies, specifically on privatisation, the Iraq war, and obviously Trident; most polls tend to show a substantial lead for the Tories, and a fragmenting of Labour's base. The government is rapidly losing ground on policies which had been broadly accepted: when ID cards were first raised, support varied between 70 and 80%. As time has gone on, support tends to vary between the high forties and low fifties. Labour's reputation for economic competence is also taking a knocking, despite impeccable Brownite 'prudence'.

It is for this reason that the Prime Minister is making frantic personal calls to 'moderate' would-be rebels, presumably offering portfolios and signed photographs. The undemocratic nature of the government's collusion with the Tories in this multi-billion pound imperial swindle is hard to miss, and so they rely on the impression of a broad national consensus with a handful of rebels causing trouble as usual.