Trade union leaders are pressing Ed Miliband not to abandon Labour’s support for Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system, and warning that failing to renew it could cost 13,000 jobs.
Mr Miliband will soon have to take one of his biggest decisions since becoming Labour leader – whether to back the Conservatives’ £25bn plan to renew the Trident system or to side with the Liberal Democrats, who believe such a like-for-like replacement would be expensive and unnecessary. The Lib Dems will publish their alternative proposals this summer.
On a visit to Scotland today, David Cameron argued that the “worrying and threatening” noises from North Korea recently showed that a full-scale Trident renewal was “the best insurance policy” against nuclear blackmail.
Britain needs to make a critical decision on Trident in 2016. Some close advisers to Mr Miliband want him to end the support for a full-scale replacement given by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The Labour leader would keep an independent nuclear deterrent but may opt for a scaled-down version to save money and boost nuclear disarmament. For example, the number of submarines could be cut from four to three and carry fewer than the current 48 warheads, and there could be a reduction in Britain’s weapons stockpile.
Unions are worried that a change of policy by Labour could threaten the future of the shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, where BAE Systems already employs 1,000 on designing the replacement for the ageing Vanguard submarines and would employ 6,000 by 2017 if there were a full upgrade. Without that, a further 7,000 jobs in the supply chain would be at risk, including at Rolls Royce at Derby; Sheffield Forgemasters; the Faslane naval base on the River Clyde, where the submarines are based, and Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth, where they are maintained.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest union and Labour’s biggest donor, told The Independent: “Both Labour and the Coalition are debating Trident's replacement. It is a healthy debate of huge national interest in which our members' jobs and skills should not be forgotten."
On a recent visit to the Barrow shipyard, Mr McCluskey said: “The skills of this workforce and the contribution they make to this region and our country are exceptional so it is important that there is commitment right across the political parties to retain our world-leading technological advantage in submarine design and build by delivering the replacement for the Vanguard to Barrow.”
Hugh Scullion, general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, which has 750,000 members in six unions, said: “This is a major concern for us. If a decision is taken not to replace Trident, highly-skilled jobs will disappear and we will never get them back again.”
Mr Scullion said the unions would launch a campaign to safeguard Trident jobs in the next few months and would be lobbying Labour, the Lib Dems and Conservatives. “Ed Miliband will be taking soundings across the spectrum. I am quite sure he will come to the right decision,” he said.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, said during a visit to the Barrow shipyard last year that he was “blown away” by the high skills and enthusiasm of the workforce. “Forget the jewel; the shipyard is the crown itself,” he said.
However, Trident is a sensitive issue in the labour movement. Some unions have a long-standing commitment to nuclear disarmament and want the Government to invest in high-skilled “green jobs” in places like Barrow.
Labour supporters of a full Trident replacement believe it would be wrong to opt for a scaled down version on cost grounds alone, since it could leave the party open to Tory claims at the 2015 election that it is “soft” on defence. They believe the Lib Dems are unlikely to come up with a credible alternative to Trident and say their case has been undermined by the current tension between North Korea and the United States.
The Lib Dems hit back at Mr Cameron. A spokesman said: “We do not believe there should be a like-for-like replacement and we will continue to make the case for an alternative.”
Kevan Jones, a Labour defence spokesman, said: “It is absolutely right and necessary that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent. World events demonstrate that in an unpredictable era our country needs the ultimate security guarantee. The precise nature of the deterrent must be judged on meeting military capability requirements and cost.”