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11 January 2016

Jeremy Corbyn and the trade unions go to war over Trident

The Labour leader's bid to change party policy leaves him in fundamental opposition to those who represent defence workers.

By George Eaton

With the appointment of the anti-Trident Emily Thornberry as shadow defence secretary last week, Jeremy Corbyn signalled his intention to make Labour a unilateralist party once more. Today he confirmed that he was considering allowing “individual members” to change Labour policy on the issue (most likely through an e-ballot). Some Corbyn allies, including Ken Livingstone, the co-convenor of the defence review, hope that the party’s stance could be reversed in time for the Commons vote on Trident renewal later this year (though shadow cabinet members still expect a free vote on the issue). 

But there was one group that Corbyn conspicuously ignored this morning: the trade unions. Though they stand with him on many other issues, Unite and the GMB, who represent defence workers, are irrevocably opposed to him on Trident. Paul Kenny, the outgoing general secretary of the latter, was unsurprisingly enraged by Corbyn’s remarks, less because of his unilateralism (which was hardly a secret) than the suggestion that the unions could be bypassed.

At Labour’s conference last year, union and constituency delegates combined to prevent the issue from being debated. Indeed, the conference went further and actually voted for Trident renewal as part of the Britain In The World policy report. Labour First, the old right group, noted in an email to supporters: “If the rules are applied properly, this issue should not be considered by conference again until three years have elapsed”. A members’ ballot, however, if approved by the NEC, would allow conference, at which the unions hold 50 per cent of the vote, to be circumvented. 

It was this that so angered Kenny. He told the World At One: “The Labour Party policy at the moment, reaffirmed at the party conference recently, is the renewal of Trident. Jeremy is perfectly entitled to say he wants to change that policy. He needs to go through the same democratic process that arrived at that policy in the first place.” He added: “If anybody thinks that unions like the GMB are going to go quietly into the night while tens of thousands of our members’ jobs are literally Swaneed away by rhetoric, then they’ve got another shock coming.”

Kenny announced that the GMB would call a conference to represent the “50 sites around the UK whose livelihoods depend on defence contracts. We are going to ask those people what they think about the Labour Party effectively shutting down their jobs. We want their voices heard in this debate.” 

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Corbyn has pledged that the jobs lost through the abolition would be replaced through a “defence diversification fund”. But most trade unionists deride this offer. Len McCluskey recently warned that it wouldn’t “produce anything of substance” and Terry Waiting, the chairman of the Unite-backed Keep Our Future Afloat Campaign in Barrow-in-Furness, where the sucessor submarines are due to be built, told the NS earlier this year: “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.”

Unlike in other areas, such as the economy, there is no compromise that can be reached. Only the full abolition of Trident will satisfy Corbyn, a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons on moral grounds. Unite and the GMB, Labour’s two largest donors, could retaliate by threatening a cut in funding (already due to fall dramatically as a result of the trade union bill) and could prove less willing to defend the leader in the event of a challenge. But this is a battle that Corbyn shows every sign of being prepared to have.