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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.

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." 

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge