Why Labour has accepted Trident renewal

Jeremy Corbyn has abandoned a battle he could not win. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Three weeks ago, at the Labour conference, the then shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis was caught in a fractious battle over Trident. As he prepared to deliver his first speech in the role, he learned to his fury that a line vowing not to overturn the party’s pro-renewal stance had been removed. The edit, at the behest of Jeremy Corbyn’s office, reportedly prompted Lewis to punch a wall in anger.

When he was then replaced by the unilateralist Nia Griffith (instead becoming shadow business secretary), the move was seen as an act of assertion by Corbyn. The lifelong CND member, it apeared would accept no compromise.

But in her first interview as shadow defence secretary, Griffith has echoed Lewis’s stance, despite voting against renewal this year (her predecessor abstained). The Llanelli MP told British Forces Broadcasting: “I think we have to look where we are, we are already committed to Trident going ahead and therefore we have to back that. We can’t be shilly-shallying about, a decision has been taken, that decision was actually taken back in 2007 and as I say that is an issue which we as a party have consistently voted to keep as our policy”.

Though empowered by two landslide victories, Corbyn appears to have concluded that this is a battle he cannot win. In 2015, Labour’s conference reaffirmed its support for renewal. Despite the party’s leftwards shift, the trade unions (who hold 50 per cent of the vote) remain an obstacle to change. Both Unite and the GMB, who represent defence workers, are committed to Trident renewal (the latter more robustly so).

Labour has now adopted the stance that some on the left believe Corbyn should have taken from the start: multilateral disarmament. Trident, in their view, was an unhelpful distraction from forging unity around an anti-austerity platform. Only 47 Labour MPs voted against renewal earlier this year, while 140 supported it. 

Griffith said: “What we do need to do now, and there is a very strong mood for this, both within the Labour Party and in the broader public, is really push forward on the multilateral nuclear disarmament, on the multilateral approach of bringing people together across the globe to try to make our world a safer place”. John Woodcock, the chair of Labour’s backbench defence committee and the MP for Barrow and Furness (where the new Trident submarines will be built), tweeted in response: “This was a very thoughtful birthday present, thanks Jeremy and @NiaGriffithMP". 

Though this compromise has ended an unseemly split, it has alienated some of Corbyn’s long-standing allies. CND simply described Griffith’s announcement as “very bad news”. The move will also allow the anti-Trident SNP and Green Party to challenge Labour from the left. But for Corbyn, the prize of unity may prove greater than that of purity. 

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.