Labour's Shadow Trade Minister Wilf Stevenson has said it is "completely bonkers" that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) effectively lobbies within government for the interests of private arms companies.
His words have encouraged anti-arms campaigners, who want Labour to move away from the enthusiastic support for arms exports demonstrated by Tony Blair. The Labour Party's position on the issue now remains somewhat unclear.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have long argued that arms firms have wielded too much influence over government policy, whether under Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat ministers.
Stevenson, a member of the House of Lords and former advisor to Gordon Brown, was speaking at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool yesterday (26 September), organised by the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM).
He spoke of the tendency of the MoD to lobby for arms companies and said, "I think that's completely bonkers". He added that he was happy to be quoted "on the record" as saying this.
Stevenson also agreed with Symon Hill, associate director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, when he described the term "defence industry" as a "euphemism" for the arms industry. Stevenson said, "We shouldn't fall into the trap, as Symon says, of talking about the 'defence industry', as that really is a contradiction in terms. This is about sales of military equipment."
The shadow minister referred to arms sales to oppressive regimes and added, "This is about selling horrible things to horrible people".
But Stevenson was keen to emphasise that policy-makers must take into account the number of jobs provided by the arms industry, while adding that this should not be the sole basis for determining policy.
He was speaking shortly before the multinational arms company BAE Systems announced nearly 3,000 job losses in the UK. During the meeting, Symon Hill had predicted that arms companies would continue to move jobs out of Britain and could not be relied on as long-term employers.
Hill, who was also on the panel, emphasised that only 0.2 per cent of UK jobs are dependent on arms exports. He urged the government to invest in technologies to tackle climate change in such a way that the jobs this creates would be located in areas currently linked to the arms industry.
Another speaker, Helen Goodman MP, took a more cautious approach, but said it would not be "completely unrealistic" for the government to give financial support to other industries rather than arms.
The fourth member of the panel, the Christian theologian and economist Alan Storkey, insisted that the ideal of worldwide disarmament was "realistic" and should not be dismissed.
Stevenson's comments are likely both to encourage and surprise those who have criticised the export of UK arms to oppressive regimes. Many thought that, even in opposition, Labour would be reluctant to shift its position on arms exports.
It is not clear whether Labour's shadow defence ministers agree with their colleague. The party's defence team declined CSM's request to provide a speaker for the fringe meeting.
Stevenson is junior to Shadow Business Secretary John Denham and shadows Trade Minister Stephen Green, also a member of the House of Lords. Green, a Church of England priest and former head of HSBC, was rumoured to have moral doubts about arms exports when he took up the job, but within hours he issued a statement expressing his support for them.
The influence of arms companies within government, particularly through the MoD, has long provoked criticism. During Tony Blair's term of office, the former minister Robin Cook wrote that the chairman of the arms firm BAE Systems had the "key to the garden door at Number Ten".
Until 2008, the Ministry of Defence ran the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) to promote arms exports. DESO was widely seen as a lobbying unit for the arms industry, funded by the taxpayer. Gordon Brown's government responded to a campaign led by CAAT, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and other groups by shutting down DESO and moving its functions to UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a unit of the Department for Business.
But campaigners argue that the MoD still upholds the arms dealers' interests. They also point out that UKTI devotes more staff to its arms section than to all civil sectors combined, even though arms make up only 1.5 per cent of UK exports.
Symon Hill, associate director of Ekklesia, welcomed Wilf Stevenson's remarks and urged the Labour Party to commit itself to acting on them. He told the meeting, "The arms industry's influence within government means that export regulations are full of loopholes and worded so vaguely that they allowed Cameron's government to attempt to sell sniper rifles to Gaddafi only weeks before the Libyan uprising".
Hill added, "We need a renewed commitment to ending arms exports to oppressive regimes. This cannot be done by regulations alone. A government truly committed to democracy would need to reduce the power of the arms dealers by tackling the structures and cultures that give them so much influence."