Local campaigner Paul McGowan shares a case study of how grassroots action by the Coventry Justice and Peace Group persuaded the West Midlands’ municipal pension fund to divest from some arms companies.

It is not enough to care for the victims of war. We have to prevent those wars in the first place. Most countries waging war do not make their own weapons. Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is not fought with the products of the Saudi arms industry. Countries buy their weapons from wherever they can, and one of the chief suppliers is the UK. It is outright hypocrisy  to present to the public images of suffering when that suffering is being financed by that same public. To encourage organisations to set up facilities for the victims of war, while investing in the production and sale of weapons to fuel those wars, is a contradiction that should not be tolerated.

In January 2013 we discovered the existence of numerous investments in the arms trade within the portfolio of the West Midlands Pension Fund (WMPF), the pension fund for local government workers in the West Midlands. ‘We’ are a small group representing some of the Catholic parishes across Coventry, committed to the pursuit of justice and peace in a variety of ways and working to bring these to the wider attention of church-goers and all who could lend support.

To establish the basic facts about WMPF’s investments, we consulted the annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which listed the top 100 arms companies, and then compared this list with the WMPF’s annual statement of equity holdings. We discovered more than 40 of these arms companies within WMPF holdings.

The WMPF is administered by a committee of  trustees, all of whom must be elected Councillors from the seven Districts that make up the West Midlands Region. Six of the Districts have one representative; Wolverhampton, the administrative centre for the Fund, has six. The lines of accountability are therefore very short and localised.

At first, we imagined that the basic facts of the case would be enough to enlist the support of Coventry City Council in persuading the other regional Councils which administer the WMPF to tackle this issue. Coventry prides itself on its reputation as ‘the City of Peace and Reconciliation’. How could it not work with us to end all such investments?  How could the city’s major institutions, the University, the Cathedral, fail to give their enthusiastic backing to such an obviously worthy cause? 

We quickly discovered otherwise. Perhaps it was our call for divestment from all the arms companies that was the problem? So we switched to a less ambitious but more compelling demand – to disinvest from those companies involved in the making of cluster bombs. After all, the UK was one of the signatories of the 2008 international treaty prohibiting the use, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster bombs.

The campaigning strategy in Coventry (the only place, so far, in the West Midlands to tackle arms trade investments) has relied heavily on three arguments:

  1. The investments made by the WMPF are taken from Council Tax revenues across the region. Anyone who pays Council Tax in any of the seven Districts of the West Midlands is therefore both implicated in the investments and has the right to object to them. The trustees of the Fund are all local Councillors and therefore within easy reach of the electorate.
  2. Further, investments in the arms trade are contrary to the ethos of the city of Coventry which claims to be committed to Peace and Reconciliation, at home and abroad.
  3. The only way to change the investment arrangements is for local people and their representatives to act together to convince the Trustees.

The three-year campaign to pull the WMPF out of all cluster bomb investments was finally successful at the end of 2017. A key factor in the eventual success of this part of the campaign was a change in the make-up of the committee of Trustees of the WMPF. We finally acquired a Coventry representative willing to take up the issue with determination.

But, even with the divestment from cluster bombs the WMPF still had substantial investments in other companies involved in the arms trade. How to proceed? Ideally we needed to focus on a Coventry-based company (involved in the arms trade) which was part of the WMPF portfolio, so that we could continue to draw attention to how our council taxes were being used, and at the same time highlight the tension between the city’s commitment to promoting peace and reconciliation and the presence of an arms manufacturer within the city.

We decided to go for Lockheed-Martin, the world’s largest arms company (Hellfire missiles, F-35 ‘strike fighters’, Trident missiles, etc.). Until 2016 Lockheed-Martin was present in the city under its own name, but now operates in that of a subsidiary, Leidos, based in Coventry University’s Technology Park. Leidos, ranked by SIPRI as the world’s 17th largest arms company, is a logistics specialist and claims (on its website) to handle the supply of all weaponry and munitions to U.S. troops and their allies across the Middle East, from a huge facility in Kuwait.

Our first task was to get this basic information into the ‘municipal bloodstream’, so to speak. Leidos refuses to communicate with us, even to confirm or deny that its Coventry facility is involved in the activities mentioned on its website. All of the city’s major institutions are caught up in the problem, and so far have failed to respond to our approaches. We have no illusions about the amount of work that lies ahead.

Nevertheless, we have now reverted to our original demand that WMPF should disinvest from companies involved in the arms trade. We draw a degree of encouragement from the fact that we continue to have a sympathetic representative on the fund’s committee of trustees. Moreover, the trustees have shown they are prepared to consider divestment, as with the case of the cluster bombs. And so we continue the struggle.

Since retiring from secondary school teaching Paul McGowan has spent much of his time with the Coventry Justice and Peace Group researching and campaigning against the investments in the arms trade made by the West Midlands Pension Fund.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership. 

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