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4 November 2015updated 19 Jul 2016 9:00am

How will Labour resolve its nuclear dilemma?

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Jeremy Corbyn will hold a free vote on Trident renewal. But the party's troubles will not end there. 

By George Eaton

At this moment, somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, one of the UK’s four nuclear-armed submarines is on patrol. The vessel carries a maximum of eight missiles and 40 warheads – each one eight times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Locked in its safe is a handwritten “letter of last resort” from the Prime Minister, telling the commanding officer how to respond in the event of a nuclear strike on the UK.

Under the principle of deterrence, Britain’s enemies should fear that the order held in the safe would compel the vessel’s commander to “retaliate”. But when Jeremy Corbyn stated on 30 September that he would never use nuclear weapons he repudiated this strategy. In so doing, he intensified the divide within Labour over the bomb, one that spans its postwar history.

When Clement Attlee resolved to acquire the bomb in 1946, he was opposed by his chancellor, Hugh Dalton, on financial grounds. But the intervention of the pugnacious foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, proved decisive. “We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs,” he said. “We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” Ever since, many inside Labour have argued equally fervently that “it” should be disposed of. As the shadow international development secretary, Diane Abbott, told the New Statesman, this issue has been “totemic” for the party.

Unilateral nuclear disarmament was one of the policies advocated by Michael Foot at the 1983 election, which left Labour with just 27.6 per cent of the vote – its worst postwar result. In the late 1980s, the issue was “emblematic of Neil Kinnock’s turn to the right”, Abbott said. Kinnock relinquished his opposition to a nuclear deterrent in 1989, a stance upheld by all of his successors – until Corbyn.

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Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Foreign Secretary, 1945-51. Without him, Britain would never have become a nuclear state. Photo: Getty Images

The Islington North MP joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as a schoolboy in 1966 and now serves as vice-president. In 2007 he was one of 87 Labour MPs to rebel against the party line and vote to scrap Trident (as the current nuclear system is known). Since becoming leader, Corbyn has compromised on his opposition to Nato membership, on the EU and on the monarchy, agreeing to abide by existing policy in each case. But he has not wavered in his hostility to Trident. Along with austerity, it is a “defining issue” for him, one ally says.

In 2028 Trident will expire, having replaced the Polaris programme in the mid-1990s. To ensure the completion of a successor by this date, MPs must vote on its renewal next year. The Ministry of Defence estimates the cost at £25bn but annual maintenance and decommissioning costs could increase it to £100bn.

Shortly after his election, Corbyn sought to manage Labour’s divide by announcing that Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary and a Trident supporter, would lead a review. This, Eagle recently told the NS, would examine the UK’s nuclear system with “a completely open mind” on the basis of “facts and figures”. Sources say that the study will take at least a year. Time is against Labour.

The anti-Trident Scottish National Party is expected to stage an opposition-day vote on the issue on 24 November. For Labour, the Nationalist motion is politically hazardous but manageable. The party could abstain on the grounds that it is performing a review and that the vote is a political trap. Yet the House of Commons vote on “main gate” Trident renewal, due by next spring, cannot be dismissed. In an attempt to exacerbate Labour’s unease, Conservative sources have briefed that they may bring the decision forward to December. Whenever the vote falls, it will be before the completion of the opposition’s review.

Following his victory, Corbyn declared his intention to make Labour conference the party’s supreme decision-making body. In common with his late mentor Tony Benn, he argues that left-wing policies supported by the members have long been thwarted by the leadership. Given the chance to debate an anti-Trident motion at the recent conference, however, delegates declined to do so.

Worse for unilateralists, they endorsed the Britain in the World report, committing the party to supporting a continuous at-sea deterrent. Labour First, the old right group, noted in an email to members: “If the rules are applied properly, this issue should not be considered by conference again until three years have elapsed.”

Among shadow cabinet members and MPs, Corbyn is isolated. There are just four other confirmed unilateralists at the top table: Abbott; the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell; the shadow communities and local government secretary, Jon Trickett; and the shadow Scottish secretary, Ian Murray. Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, has pledged to resign if the party opposes Trident renewal and others would likely follow. Among the most committed supporters of the deterrent are the deputy leader, Tom Watson, the shadow culture secretary, Michael Dugher, and the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker.

Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary, and longterm opponent of the Bomb. Photo: Getty Images

“When John McDonnell says we have to balance the Budget,” Diane Abbott countered, “when we can’t use [Trident] without the approval of the Americans, when it does nothing to combat cyber-threats or global jihadism, when even the armed forces have long tacitly conceded that it doesn’t serve a tactical military purpose . . . can it really be right to say ‘yes’ to Trident?”

“Good luck, Diane,” replied Dugher, when this was put to him. He told the NS: “Policy isn’t made by me or by Diane. We’ve got a proper process around the national policy forum. That’s how we make policy and our policy remains that we are a multilateralist party and that we’re committed to the renewal of Trident. We have tried the alternative and, I’m responsible for the film industry in opposition, I’ve seen that particular movie and I know how it ends.

As well as dividing Corbyn from his shadow cabinet and MPs, the issue pits him against Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, which represents thousands of defence workers. Its general secretary, Len McCluskey, recently said: “I understand the moral case and the huge cost of replacing Trident, especially in this era of austerity, but the most important thing for us is jobs and the defence of communities.” Corbyn’s pledge to protect jobs through a “diversification” programme is derided by trade unionists.

Terry Waiting, the chairman of the Unite-backed Keep Our Future Afloat Campaign in Barrow-in-Furness, where the successor Trident submarines are due to be built, told the NS: “Somewhere in the region of 8,000 people would lose employment in the shipyard in Barrow. It’s something that I really do not think Jeremy Corbyn and his team have thought about. In the ‘80s we commissioned a piece of work called ‘Oceans of Work’ and it looked at alternative employment in the shipbuilding industry … we went to the employer and asked whether they would contemplate this sort of work and, very bluntly, they told me that they would be better off putting the money in the Furness Building Society because they would get a better rate of return.” During a recent visit to Carlisle, Watson assured defence workers that their jobs were safe as the party’s pro-Trident wing would prevail.

Protestors march against the submarines in 2007. Photo: Getty Images

After their defeat at the Labour conference, unilateralists vowed to win next time. But they will struggle to get an anti-Trident motion on the agenda in 2016. The conference arrangements committee is comprised of five union representatives and two figures from the party’s right: the shadow minister for young people, Gloria De Piero, and the former actor and MEP Michael Cashman, who defeated the pro-Corbyn Katy Clark and Jon Lansman in the recent election.

Months before its next conference in September, Labour must resolve how to vote on Trident in the Commons. Seven shadow cabinet members told the NS that they believed that there was only one logical solution: a free vote. Corbyn will not walk through the division lobby in support of a system that he regards as fundamentally immoral. Nor can he impose his position on the party without suffering shadow cabinet resignations and triggering a crisis. And so, as a senior frontbencher observed: “For the first time, a leader will hold a free vote to  allow himself to rebel.” But Dugher told the NS: “You can’t have a free vote on Labour Party policy can you? Everyone should vote in a way that’s consistent with Labour Party policy. If you’d like a different policy, change the policy. But you’ve got to go through a process.”

Even if Trident’s successor is approved by MPs, the argument will not end. The question will become whether a future Labour government would abandon the renewal process. As a shadow cabinet minister warned: “It will be an election issue.”

Without the departure of either Corbyn or pro-nuclear frontbenchers, no one could say how Labour would reach a coherent position in its manifesto. Trident may be renewed next year. But Labour’s nuclear dilemma has only just begun. 

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe