Jeremy Corbyn is prepared for battle over Trident – but it could harm him

Whether the Labour conference votes for or against disarmament, the leader could be damaged. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Party leaders usually run shy of divisive issues, particularly at their first conference in charge. But Jeremy Corbyn is very much not a traditional party leader. After a motion on Trident passed the first stage required for it to be debated at the Labour conference, Corbyn said today that he both hopes and expects that it will be. The life-long nuclear disarmer (he is vice-chairman of CND) told Sky News: "I think it's going to be discussed and I'm sure that the majority of delegates both in the union section and the constituency section would want it discussed. I think it's a good idea. Conference ought to be the place where there is open discussion - that is the whole function of it." He added: "There will be a number of different views put forward. I am, as everybody knows, on the record as opposing Trident and its replacement."

Corbyn's stance is admirably democratic. But it risks undermining his leadership at the earliest stage. Should activists select Trident as one of the eight motions to be debated (from a shortlist of twelve), there is no guarantee that Corbyn's position will prevail. Both Labour delegates, who hold 50 per cent of the vote, and trade unions, who hold the other 50 per cent, are divided on the subject. The GMB union, for instance, which has many members in the defence industry, declared this week that it would be "madness" to scrap the weapons system and the 40,000 jobs it provides. 

For Corbyn, a conference defeat so early in his leadership on so grave a matter would be a humbling moment. Should he instead win the day, the division between him and much of his shadow cabinet would be sharpened. With a few exceptions (Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Ian Murray, Jon Trickett), Corbyn's team is resolutely opposed to unilateral disarmament. Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, was awarded the post in spite of emphasising her multilateralism. There is already speculation among sources that she and former shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker, who now shadows Northern Ireland, could resign if conference votes against Trident. 

When I asked Corbyn whether nuclear disarmament would become Labour policy if a motion was passed, he told me: "Well, it would be, of course, because it would have been passed at conference." In fact, as sources note, conference motions are not technically binding on the party. Rather, it is the National Policy Forum that is sovereign. Should Corbyn wish to make conference the pre-eminent decision-making body, it would require a formal rule change. 

A debate on Trident, for the first time since 1993, would expose Labour's divisions on national security for all to see. As all wings of the party struggle to adjust to this new era, both supporters and opponents of Corbyn warn that would not be a good look.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.