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7 January 2016

Where Labour is heading on Trident

Jeremy Corbyn is likely to offer a free vote to shadow cabinet members but try to change party policy. 

By George Eaton

By most conventional measures, Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle was not a success. It took far too long (nearly 66 hours), led to three resignations and distracted from a series of negative stories for the Conservatives such as the floods and the cabinet’s EU divisions. But crucially for Corbyn, as I write in my column this week, it strengthened his internal position. For the Labour leader, who took office in an unprecedentedly weak position (just 14 MPs voted for him), this is the immediate priority. The sacking of Michael Dugher (partly for his recent Staggers piece) and Pat McFadden demonstrated that there are limits to dissent and the absence of shadow cabinet resignations will embolden Corbyn to act again if necessary. 

The Labour leader’s most significant victory was over defence. Trident supporter Maria Eagle, now shadow culture secretary, was replaced in the brief by Emily Thornberry, an opponent of renewal. This, as CND has been quick to hail, paves the way for Labour to become a unilateralist party for the first time since 1989. “We were too focused on Hilary [Benn] and they got one over on us with Emily’s appointment,” a shadow minister told me. 

It is now a near-certainty that Labour’s defence review, which is co-convened by Ken Livingstone, will endorse disarmament. Before she was moved, Eagle’s aides emphasised that she would “lead” the review, suggesting that it could back Trident. The arrival of Thornberry, whose Islington South constituency neighbours Corbyn’s, ends that possibility. 

Shadow cabinet ministers have told me that are they still confident that Corbyn will offer a free vote when the Commons decides on Trident renewal later this year. Andy Burnham has vowed to resign if forced to support disarmament and others would likely follow. Tom Watson, who emphasises that he has his own mandate as deputy leader, Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle and Vernon Coaker are among those committed to renewal. But unlike in the case of Syria, when Benn spoke of in favour of air strikes from the dispatch box, Thornberry will advocate Corbyn’s stance. 

Though they expect a free vote, MPs recognise that party policy, which currently supports Trident, is likely to be changed after or even before the Commons decision. In interviews yesterday, John McDonnell stated that the leadership intends to agree a new “consultative process”, bypassing the National Policy Forum, which will allow party members to vote on the issue. Since the increasingly Corbynite membership would likely oppose renewal, this would enable Corbyn’s stance to become the party’s. The clear hope of the leadership is that while a free vote will be conceded, Labour policy will be to oppose renewal. This half-victory was attempted in the case of Syria but failed after shadow cabinet members protested (arguing that the conference motion legitimised air strikes and rejecting the members’ survey hastily conducted by the leadership). Mindful of that experience, Corbyn and his allies are determined to arrive better-armed this time. 

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