When Kinnock Abandoned Unilateralism

Labour’s bomb

by Jack Lane

Kinnock deserves praise for his abandonment of unilateralism and his attempt to get the Labour Party to drop it as well. It raises the possibility that the party will be taken seriously again by the electorate. It is to be hoped that a fudge will not be attempted on the issue. This would undoubtedly be very tempting for Kinnock as there is a legitimate place for fudging and ambiguity on nuclear weapons and their possible use – it is after all an essential ingredient in making them useful as a deterrent.

However, there have to be certainties in order for there to be purposeful ambiguity and these could be established by dropping notions about it being possible to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000 and by accepting that weapons have to be modernised if they are to have any credibility. It is also necessary to accept that they do not exist only for the purpose of getting rid of them as quickly as possible at the first opportunity and that this can be called ‘bargaining’ and ‘negotiating’.

Every shop steward knows that an elementary law of serious negotiating is not to show your hand before you even start negotiating. It would also be useful and sobering for Kinnock to point out that nice Mr Gorbachev will not be around for ever and that he might well see Russia’s interests served by a different approach in the future.

All Russian leaders from Lenin onwards have been wonderfully consistent and flexible in promoting the interests of the Soviet Union at all times. Gorbachev has reacted to the new environment that culminated in the Star Wars programme in the US and an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

It would do Kinnock no harm to acknowledge that this is what has brought about a change of heart in the Kremlin. Otherwise the impression can be given that Mikhail is motivated by some sudden heartfelt desire for bourgeois democracy and that he is now immune to nearly 80 years of Leninist pronouncements on the issue.

What’s just happened in China proves that Communist regimes can change their policies overnight. It’s not like the Labour Party; policies can switch completely in a way that would not be possible in a parliamentary system, or even for a Latin American junta. No one was expecting nice moderate Mr Deng to invade his own capital city and carry out a massacre of the ordinary citizens: and yet it happened. Communist regimes can switch their policies, just as neatly as a well-trained orchestra can switch from playing Mozart to playing Wagner. Let Kinnock take note.

The Kremlin has produced tons of jargon and gobbledegook to suit any current policy which is always credited with being the summation of human wisdom. Each time, the future of the world depends on the world accepting it as such. Kinnock more than most politicians needs to prove that he can distinguish between rhetoric and reality. And he could begin by doing so in the case of the Kremlin.

Above all he must cease giving the impression that he has changed his position purely for the sake of winning the next election. In so far as he fails to do so he concedes the moral high ground to the unilateralists, who at least are right in considering the issue as more important than the election. Some of the shadow Cabinet give the distinct impression that they would say or do anything for the sake of electoral success. Kaufman seems on the point of going anorexic if he is denied a taste of office for much longer. People like him need office like Dracula needs blood, or like a junkie needs a fix. None of these are pretty sights.

Labour and NATO

In dropping unilateralism Kinnock is joining the mainstream of the Labour Party in historical as well as purely electoral terms. And he need look no further in order to justify and defend his position. The British nuclear bomb is in a very real sense a Labour bomb, no matter how much that might horrify Tony Benn & Co. It was first constructed by the 1945 Labour government. So too was NATO. And this was the same Labour government that built the NHS and the Welfare State. The present day left must regard that government as a bunch of schizophrenics in having done these things, as they are self-contradictory in terms of the Bennite definition of socialism.

But the socialists who actually ran the Labour Party back in the 1940s regarded these things as complementary because they were building a socialism that was unique and appropriate and they sensed that it might well need defending even against other brands of socialism.

They were also in a very real sense defending a helpless Western Europe against Soviet designs and American indifference. Morally speaking, therefore, the British Labour bomb has a very honourable origin and no British government since has made better use of it. (Or better non-use of it, rather. The fact that it existed meant that neither it nor any other weapons needed to be used.)

Kinnock can best secure his position by relying on the Labour movement’s own history. There is a rich experience to draw on from the defeat of pacifism in the 1930s right through to the development of his own hero, Bevan, in the 1950s. And if he does not make use of this history it will be misused against him. Kinnock could make history for himself by preventing unilateralism from ever again taking over the party, as it has twice before.

Livingstone’s contribution

One particular argument on defence that is likely to get a lot of support on the left is that being developed by Livingstone, to the effect that Labour will not be able to have a proper economic policy of adequate investment for industry because of the cost of a nuclear armaments programme. Labour, the argument goes, will therefore either not win the election or discredit itself very quickly afterwards.

This is a very seductive argument, and therefore very typical of Livingstone. It also highlights a real weakness in the Labour programme – the lack of a credible economic policy. This weakness was dramatised by Kinnock losing his temper recently when pressed by an interviewer on his alternative economic policy. It really was extraordinary that the party leader should behave like this a few weeks after the party had the results of a two year review of its policies. What was the point of the Policy Review if the party leader argues that it is not his job to provide an alternative policy?

Livingstone’s policy is to pour the millions now spent on defence into industry. This shows a very touching faith, for a socialist, in the people who run British industry. This is essentially what the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s did. And was it a success?

Consider what these same people have got from Thatcher. They have been ‘liberated’ from trade union power, given massive tax handouts, and have been operating in a sea of credit for the past few years which has the same effect as a huge expansion of the money supply.

Has the economy progressed in line with all this investment, incentives and encouragement? Not at all. We are back to where we were with an economy that still operates on a stop go basis, except that stops are now recessions and goes are high inflation. And actual production is no higher than a decade ago.

The fact is that an economy depends on the people running the economy and the relationships between them. The relations of production have not changed within British industry. And while that remains the case “investment” is a plausible way of pouring money down the drain.

Labour’s policy should concentrate on these relationships within industry. And it would soon become obvious that Labour’s natural constituency in industry, the workforce, have all the power for good or ill. But they do not have a corresponding responsibility. That remains with a class that needs unlimited incentives to maintain a commitment to production. That is why we will have stop-go until Labour offers a way out of the cycle by making the producers responsible for production. That is the only way to a stable and real growth in production. And it transcends all arguments on investment as well as arguments on nationalisation and privatisation.

There is no doubt Livingstone realises that a pure unilateralist approach has no hope of success, and he has developed his economic argument in a totally spurious way. However it gives the Labour leadership an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – to develop its case against unilateralism and to develop the basis for a real alternative economic policy that is radical and realistic, an alternative to bankrupt Thatcherism as well as to the exhausted state socialism of yesteryear.


This article appeared in July 1989, in Issue 12 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.