18 Nov 15. Ex- Mayor of London, the former MP for Brent, scourge of Margaret Thatcher when he was leader of the now long ago defunct Greater London Council (GLC) and now a journalist and regular broadcaster Ken Livingstone has been asked by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to co-chair a review Labour Party policy on defence and particularly that which relates to the maintenance, operation and renewal of the UK Trident nuclear replacement.
Over the years I have had the pleasure of doing quite a few broadcast radio interviews with Ken Livingstone. Because we have generally been on opposing sides of the argument particularly if the matter relates to defence, I would have to say that for the most part these interviews have been as enjoyable as they have often quite rightly been challenging. As the unchallenged leader of ‘mass movement’ Ken Livingstone was always likely to be offered a top job by Jeremy Corbyn but few would have thought that it would be anything to do with defence.
My initial thoughts on reading the announcement this morning was that putting Ken Livingstone in charge of a defence review was a bit like putting George Bernard Shaw in charge of the Army. In other words, the potential for mayhem, indiscipline and substantial risk. And spare a thought to for Maria Eagle MP who has been working her socks off trying to get to grips with a very important subject brief in the face of considerable adversity from her own party leader. She is now up against not one amazingly dangerous left-wing labour view on defence but quite probably two.
Ken Livingstone is of course an extremely pleasant and amiable fellow and one who is very knowledgeable on a range of domestic political and other issues. But while he is clearly still a member of the Labour Party, along I assume with the Lord West of Spithead and who, having been a former First Sea Lord, at least knows a thing or two about defence, it seems to me that Mr. Livingstone is now in a very difficult place being neither a Member of Parliament or a member of the House of Lords. True, with left wing views that are well known to be longer than the length of two or three normal sized arms, Mr. Livingstone will presumably have built up quite a rapport with Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. I doubt that that will provide any degree of reassurance to Labour members of the House of Commons!
For defence one might reasonably ask whether any of this politicking really matters. The trouble is that it does matter because whenever defence will become the subject of the day, as next week for instance when the Prime Minister announces the Strategic Defence and Security Policy 2015 review (SDSR 2015) Mr. Livingstone will be asked for his views by press and media alongside those of the Shadow Defence spokesperson Maria Eagle and who on some matters will undoubtedly be taking an alternative view unless of course she is silenced and that Mr. Corbyn makes the challenge in the House of Commons and elsewhere himself.
Official Labour Party policy on defence is what it is and on the whole, for the moment at least, it is generally supportive of existing Government policy just as it is also supportive of the military. Mr. Corbyn’s views on defence and security matters are completely aloof of the majority of his own party and it is this more likely than anything else that will lead to the collapse of his leadership of the party or worse, its self-destruction. Indeed, if or should I say when Mr. Livingston starts to shout down Trident replacement, as he undoubtedly will, this will cause real friction not only in the party but could be the catalyst that causes a mass decision to walk away from the Labour Whip. We will see but the real point I would make is that on the subject of Trident replacement an inflamed Labour Party view is almost bound to have some knock on effect on the public view just as it also plays into the hands of the Scottish Nationalists.
Why on earth Mr. Livingstone would wish to take the role of reviewing Labour Party policy on defence beats me although I accept that it will provide the former left-wing Labour MP with a soap-box to stand on. It is a bad decision and had I been in charge of Labour I would actually have asked Lord West to do the job of reviewing party policy on defence. At least that way Labour would have credibility on defence even if the result might be a touch one sided.
For Mr. Livingstone not only does this planned review of defence policy risk being a poisoned chalice it risks further huge embarrassment for a party that, in the House of Commons at least, is struggling to stay afloat. I am in little doubt that the majority of Labour MP’s support existing Labour Party policy not only on maintaining the UK Trident Nuclear Deterrent capability but also on its planned its replacement. Most also understand the value of conventional deterrence and of defence diplomacy as well. Most Labour Party MP’s are sensible but then, very few of them voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader!
CHW (London 18th November 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS