Labour will debate the nuclear deterrent for the first time since 1993, raising the possibility that the party will end its support for a British nuclear deterrent. But the path to changing party policy is still thorny.
Since the Attlee government first set out to acquire a British bomb, the party has been split on the nuclear question, but this latest battle leaves both Labour’s unilateralists – who favour an immediate disarmament by Britain – and multilateralists – who favour retaining the deterrent while other countries retain nuclear capability – scrabbling for votes. The triumph of Gloria De Piero and Michael Cashman, both candidates from Labour’s centre, in elections to party’s Conference Arrangements Committe, led many to assume that the issue of Trident would remain “parked” for the forseeable future.
But instead the issue of Trident will join the NHS, housing, the situation in Syria and other issues on the priorities ballot, where delegates to Conference will vote on which issues on the list they want to debate. If scrapping the deterrent makes it past that hurdle, it will be voted on by delegates at full Conference.
But neither supporters nor opponents of the nuclear submarines are confident that they have the votes to secure their preferred policy on Trident. Many constituency parties have used their conference delegate selection as a way to give a new member a free trip to Conference in recent years, as, under successive leaders from Neil Kinnock to Ed Miliband, the power of Conference as a policymaking body has waned. “We gave ours to a young member, knocked on loads of doors, loves Tony Blair and has a hardon for Trident,” one Labour activist told me of their constituency delegate, “He’s a nice guy but I wouldn’t have voted for him if I’d known this could come up.”
One delegate, who attended a briefing for delegates in their region, says that the delegates are mostly “quite wet behind the ears asking questions like ‘What do we do for lunch?’ and ‘Are we allowed to post updates on our Facebook?'” One insider from the party’s right believes that the unrepresentative nature of the delegates may make them less pro-Corbyn than the average Labour member. “We gave ours to one of our best campaigners. And a lot of our best campaigners weren’t voting for Corbyn. It was new people, or people who came back, who voted for Jeremy.”
It may be that both supporters and opponents of the deterrent conspire to prevent a full debate this year. Many on the on left think that Corbyn should concentrate on anti-austerity and public services in his first conference, “leave the foreign stuff for when the polls improve” in the words of one, while others are nervous that they could lose the vote this year. “We didn’t know this year would be important,” one tells me, “And everyone was organising for the leadership race.” Pro-Trident forces within Labour are similarly doubtful of their ability to win the vote this time around.
So it may be that scrapping the deterrent is beaten out by housebuilding, the question of whether to intervene in Syria, and other issues, at least this year. However, with Jeremy Corbyn expected to return more powers to Labour’s party conference, a repeat of this year’s battle over Trident is likely inevitable.