Britain: Labour's nuclear conflict

During the second leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of his ambition to have ministers for peace and disarmament in a future Labour government…

During the second leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of his ambition to have ministers for peace and disarmament in a future Labour government. Corbyn’s life-long opposition to nuclear weapons and war was among the policies that attracted the hundreds of thousands who surged into the Labour Party to defend him against the warmonger Blairites and their coup. Cancelling the renewal of the Trident missile system could allow a government to redirect jobs, skills and technology into decommissioning nuclear weapons and nuclear power. It could invest in renewable energy, environmentally sustainable public transport and so on. This would inspire millions across the world to reject both the lies that spending billions on nuclear bombs is necessary and the pro-war governments who tell them.

But to achieve an anti-nuclear, anti-war Labour government in Britain first requires winning the civil war over what kind of party Labour will be. This war, over whether the party represents the working class or the capitalist establishment, is being fought on all fronts. Trident renewal is one of those battlefields. Building support for Corbyn’s unequivocal anti-Trident position in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament is now an urgent task.

Trident renewal is obscenely expensive, with a price tag estimated at anywhere from £160 billion to £205 billion over its lifetime. Nuclear weapons have not prevented a continuous series of regional wars, most of them proxy wars for the military powers. The requirement of US maintenance means Trident is not independent. Modern warfare technology will make nuclear submarines obsolete – not to mention the catastrophe using them would mean. What remains is that these submarines bring the British government a place on the UN Security Council – the basis for Britain’s claim to be a great world power, despite the economic, social and political crises that exist.

Ultimately, Trident nuclear weapons are part and parcel of defending the spheres of influence and prestige of the British ruling class. It is in the material interests of the capitalists to fight to maintain them despite the widely accepted reasons not to renew. Opposing renewal and standing for disarmament therefore requires a confrontation and break with the capitalists and a transformation of society along socialist, internationalist lines. Unfortunately, many of those around Jeremy Corbyn do not see Trident in this way.

On 19 July there was a parliamentary vote on Trident renewal. Ex-prime minister David Cameron hoped it would bring the Tories back together after the EU referendum and open up the splits in the Labour Party. Without doubt the Blairite plotters had a hand in this plan, seeing an opportunity to isolate Jeremy Corbyn and destabilise his leadership. Corbyn and 46 Labour MPs voted against renewal. Tom Watson, Labour deputy leader who spoke in defence of capitalism and of Blair’s era of war at the party’s conference, was among the 140 Labour MPs who voted with the Tories.

One in five Labour MPs abstained on whether or not billions of pounds should be spent on weapons of mass destruction, including Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, both unsuccessful right-wing challengers to Corbyn. So did Emily Thornberry and Clive Lewis, the authors of Corbyn’s as yet unpublished defence review. Meanwhile, the strategy of Momentum’s leadership of conciliating the right will not achieve the kind of government Corbyn invited his audience to imagine. The idea that you can help Labour come to power under Jeremy Corbyn by uniting the party through offering concessions to the right on certain issues is a major mistake.

In April, Guardian journalist Paul Mason articulated his own strategy of ‘practical politics’, backing Trident renewal as a sort of gambling chip. He said that spending £41 billion (which is an underestimate of the full cost) was worth it to unite the left and the right-wing ‘centrists’ which, he says, is needed to get a Labour government elected which could then fight austerity.

Trident cannot be separated from domestic policy. Firstly, the billions spent on it would not be available for spending on housing, education, health, etc. Furthermore, a concession on renewal would be a sign of weakness and an invitation to the Blairites to attack. It would also be an indication that the break with the status quo of war and austerity demanded by millions of people is not on offer from Corbyn’s Labour with a consequent drop in enthusiasm and participation.

Mason argued that the Syriza government in Greece, by remaining in Nato, had ‘gained permission’ to take on their main target, the oligarchs. But by attempting to conciliate with capitalism, including by not rejecting the war-mongering representative of western capitalist interests that is Nato, the Syriza leadership betrayed the heroic Greek working class and middle class, and demonstrated that it was not ready to see the battle through to the end and surrendered to the oligarchs.

Two months after the Trident vote, at the Labour Party conference, Lewis, then shadow defence minister, broke with Corbyn’s life-long anti-war positions. He spoke of how Nato "springs directly from our values: collectivism, internationalism, and the strong defending the weak". During the two leadership contests Corbyn correctly talked about winding up Nato and of resisting the push to military intervention contained in its founding statement. Tom Watson expanded further on Lewis’s bogus claim, outrageously referring to Nato as a ‘socialist construct’.

Lewis’s clash with Corbyn’s team over his speech was widely reported. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of communications, had removed a sentence committing Labour to its current position of backing Trident into the future. This position is a remnant of the Blair years, dating from 2007, and is subject to Corbyn’s defence review. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament estimates that two thirds of the respondents to the review oppose renewal but complain that there are no current plans for its publication or for the membership to get a chance to debate it.

A February poll of Labour members indicates that the Labour membership is moving rapidly away from the Blairite position. When asked if it was essential to spend £100 billion on Trident renewal a majority disagreed. But there is a significantly higher proportion of opposition among those who joined after Corbyn’s election than those who joined before Ed Miliband was the leader: 51% said they would not vote for a candidate who had supported Trident renewal against only 10% who definitely would.

But the membership, despite its growth in size, will not be able to make its mark on party policy without organising. Throughout its history, until the Blairite transformation, Labour has been the site of a battle over military policy, like domestic policy, with a pro-war, pro-capitalist leadership and a working-class base. Between 1964 and 1970, opposition in the streets, universities and Constituency Labour Parties meant that, despite its general support for the US strategy in Vietnam, the Wilson government was unable to commit troops. Now, although the leadership has changed, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party structures are in complete opposition to the interests of the membership.

Momentum claims 18,000 members across the country. It has the potential, if it began to organise around an unswerving strategy of fighting the right-wing, to build pressure from below to change policy and back Corbyn. The same goes for the trade unions. Many MPs claim that trade union backing for Trident renewal to defend jobs makes opposition impossible. However, this year’s Unite conference saw a move towards Corbyn’s position if in a somewhat ambiguous form. A bold left campaign, involving a programme of converting military industry and protecting jobs, as well as measures to re-democratise the party and the unions and break with the Blairite past, could consolidate this. A full members’ debate on Trident with the ability to change policy at conference is also needed.

The new appointments to the shadow cabinet show that the pro-Trident right will not be conciliated. Despite widespread press claims that the new shadow defence minister, Nia Griffiths, was an anti-Trident Corbyn ally, she quickly came out in defence of the 2007 position of support for renewal. Wayne David, appointed as a junior defence minister, claims that Corbyn agreed to three conditions on his taking up the position, including support for Trident and Nato. MPs who make such demands should have no place in an anti-austerity, internationalist and pro-workers’ socialist party that needs to be built to achieve an anti-war government in the future.

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December 2016