Keep asking till you get the ‘right answer’

We need to talk to about what happened with Trident this week at Labour party conference. Before we do, it is worth remembering the reccurring horror show that this debate has long been for Labour.

The last time Labour was in the wilderness, its unilateral disarmament stance was cited regularly by voters as a reason to not even consider Labour a party fit to govern. Margaret Thatcher was considered strong on defence while Labour was described by would-be voters as ‘lunatics on defence’ according to Philip Gould in his book the Unfinished Revolution. As part of a long and painful march back to respectability, Labour party conference in 1988 voted down a motion backing unilateral nuclear disarmament. By 1992, Gould who worked for Neil Kinnock, was able to report that, ‘Gerald Kaufman [had] brilliantly abandoned unilateralism’. While 1992 was not the result we wanted, Labour was at least respectable to voters again. Winning would only come later and after further modernisation.

But, as I said, this nightmare for Labour is on repeat. Hugh Gaitskell’s speech to ‘fight and fight and fight again for the party we love’ was in response to the Labour party’s 1960 conference saddling the party with unilateralism. A year later the party returned to its senses.

So, what happened this week? In short the delegates at conference had three opportunities to change the party’s position on Trident. At each opportunity they decided no change was needed. This was not elite committees but democratic votes by delegates – real eating, breathing Labour party delegates.

First, the priority ballot. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy submitted their usual motion on the issue of Trident. It is hard to see what made it ‘contemporary’ but the newly composed conference arrangements committee – made up of five union reps and two elected by members – waved it through. Under the changed rules for this year’s conference, all CLPD had to do was get their motion in the top eight priorities by delegates. Not the highest bar. Due to a little GOTV by moderates working together – Labour First, Progress, members of parliament, sensible union types – the motion came in as priority number nine.

Second, referral back of the Trident section of the Britain in the World National Policy Forum report. This has been done before and is easier following Gordon Brown’s 2007 reforms. This option was not taken.

Third, potentially easier than all the rest, to vote down the whole of the Britain in the World report. Again this did not happen. Considering this followed the leader’s speech where he made is view pretty clear, this is even more surprising. Here is what Corbyn said:

I don’t believe £100bn on a new generation of nuclear weapons taking up a quarter of our defence budget is the right way forward.

I believe Britain should honour our obligations under the Non Proliferation Treaty and lead in making progress on international nuclear disarmament.

Pretty strident stuff. So, not content to hear the views of his party members and trade unionists representing their wider colleagues democratically on conference floor, the issue was blown open again on the last day of conference.

But this is inconsistency with the new politics that we have been promised. ‘I firmly believe leadership is about listening’, bellowed the new leader. ‘I am not a leader who wants to impose leadership lines’, he continued. He vows to ‘involve people in our debates on policy and then our party as a whole will decide.’ The delegates have voted. At conference, they are the membership’s voice. Love or hate if, but them is the rules.

The new politics seems different, however. It takes inspiration from the European constitution referendums in Ireland or France – the kind of democracy where the voters get enough opportunities to agree with the leadership.

It seems Trident will come back year after year until the new leader and CLPD get what they want: not the debate, but the ‘right answer’ – and with it another defeated Labour party at the polls.


Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets @RichardAngell


Photo: Ministry of Defence

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Comments: 17...

  1. On October 2, 2015 at 12:30 pm GilbertG responded with... #

    What you appear to say is “Labour First, Progress, members of parliament, sensible union types” nobbled any chance of there being an debate on Trident, despite the party’s members overwhelming support for a leader who opposes it.

    • On October 2, 2015 at 3:56 pm Trebor123 responded with... #

      I think that Richard Angell must have been hallucinating, if he genuinely believes that Jeremy Corbyn was bellowing at his audience, during the Party conference!

      Whether this obvious error in the article was: hyper-exaggeration, a reaction to medication/non-prescription pharmaceuticals (possibly including alcohol) or perhaps just a delusional episode, is open to question but makes it less likely that any argument, that he is attempting to make will be taken seriously.

      In the Leader’s speech, it is expected that some personal viewpoints, on important matters of party policy, will be expressed. The quote, provided by Richard Angell, omits Jeremy’s previous sentence, presumably because this proves inconvenient to his thesis? The entire quote is reproduced below, in the interest of accuracy:

      “There is one thing on which I want to make my position clear and I believe I have a mandate to do it. I don’t believe that £100bn spent on a new generation of nuclear weapons taking up a quarter of our defence budget is the right way forward. I believe our country should honour our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and take a lead in making progress towards international nuclear disarmament.”

      There will be a review of policy, as announced and no doubt a vigorous debate will ensue, before a final position is adopted by the Party. I am not sure why the director of Progress appears so uncomfortable with the concept of democratic debate within the Party, or is this only considered permissible/desirable among those belonging to his particular faction and those whom he considers to be aligned?

      . .

  2. On October 2, 2015 at 2:47 pm robertcp responded with... #

    It is worth making the point that unilateralism meant more than abandoning Britain’s nuclear weapons. It also meant removing American nuclear weapons from British soil and implied opposition to NATO. The neutralism of unilateralists was what Gaitskell was objecting to in his famous speech. Unilateralists were defeated in the early 1960s but Labour’s manifesto in 1964 was unenthusiastic about Polaris. It is also worth pointing out that Kinnock said during the 1980s that he would not use nuclear weapons and this was not an issue in 1992 after Labour abandoned unilateralism,

    My preference would be for Labour to negotiate away Trident, which would be consistent with a multilateralist approach.

    • On October 2, 2015 at 3:03 pm Jiesheng Li responded with... #

      the the mincing your own words

    • On October 2, 2015 at 4:38 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

      Gaitskell’s Campaign for Democratic Socialism explicitly supported the unilateral renunciation of Britain’s nuclear weapons, and the document Policy for Peace, on which Gaitskell eventually won his battle at the 1961 Labour Conference, stated: “Britain should cease the attempt to remain an independent nuclear power, since that neither strengthens the alliance, nor is it now a sensible use of our limited resources.”

      Numerous Tories with relevant experience – Anthony Head, Peter Thorneycroft, Nigel Birch, Aubrey Jones – were sceptical about, or downright hostile towards, British nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. In March 1964, while responsible for Polaris as First Lord of the Admiralty, George Jellicoe suggested that Britain’s nuclear deterrent be pooled with the rest of NATO.

      Far from representing national pride or independence, our nuclear weapons programme has only ever represented the wholesale subjugation of Britain’s defence capability to a foreign power. That power maintains no less friendly relations with numerous other countries, almost none of which have nuclear weapons.

  3. On October 2, 2015 at 4:37 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    Would David Cameron ever press the nuclear button? Has anyone ever asked him? When will they? It would be a great deal worse to have on that button the finger of anyone who might ever consider pressing it. By definition, such a person is a psychopath.

    Enoch Powell said to vote Labour in 1987 because of nuclear weapons. People remember the 1974 exhortation to do so because of the EU, but not that. Nevertheless, it happened.

    If Germany does not need these things, then why do we? If the Germans are relying on ours, then why do we have to pay for them, when the Germans are far richer than we are? Trident submarines are in any case tracked by the Russians. So the whole thing is useless, at least if that is the target.

    And it is not ours, anyway. Trident cannot be used without the permission of the President of the United States, no matter who or what that might be. We merely foot the bill. Trident might very soon belong to Donald Trump or, far more probably, to Hillary Clinton. At our expense.

    How have “our” nuclear weapons ever worked to keep the peace? This country has been at war for almost the whole of the present century, which is most of my adult lifetime, and I am starting to get on a bit.

    Look at the enemies against which and whom we have fought wars. Not only was none of them deterred in the slightest by “our” nuclear weapons, but if we did not use them against any of those, then against whom or what, exactly, might we ever conceivably use them? The whole world knows the answer to that one, and it behaves accordingly.

    We have Trident instead of an Army, a Navy or an Air Force. We had the mightiest Navy that the world had ever seen, before nuclear weapons were thought of. But now, we have Armed Forces so run down that they could fight almost nothing and almost nowhere.

    Never mind, though. At least we still have Trident.

    • On October 2, 2015 at 7:13 pm BirdInitials responded with... #

      Your statement about US presidential permission is
      contradicted by

      • On October 2, 2015 at 7:15 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

        I am almost tempted to say “try it”. The thing physically could not be fired without American permission, nor could it fail to be fired if the President of the United States so instructed. Try it. All right, don’t. But even so.

        The French have independent nuclear weapons. But they don’t think that they are the Americans, or that the Americans are them. The Americans are not us, either.

        • On October 2, 2015 at 9:00 pm BirdInitials responded with... #

          Nice try. The letter in the safe of every Vanguard is signed by the UK PM, not the POTUS.

          • On October 2, 2015 at 9:25 pm David Lindsay responded with... #


  4. On October 2, 2015 at 7:07 pm john knowles responded with... #

    Progress has very many good ideas ,therefore it is a pity Mr Angell takes this opportunity to stab the new leader .Perhaps he wants open warfare within the party . Now thats sure to make us unelectable . Come on Mr Angell , Labour is a broad enough church to allow all views to be respected and Democracy to be respected too . The members voted for Jeremy Corbyn , but you think you know better . Perhaps you prefer MPs to impose their will on those doing all of the unpaid work .

  5. On October 2, 2015 at 11:15 pm Patrick Kelly responded with... #

    What makes support for Trident ‘modern’? Why are we not having a proper debate about its efficiency and value – given that we are supposed to be cutting public spending for the good of the wider economy? The suggestion in the article is that we simply cannot discuss Trident because the right would say we are ‘soft’ on defence. I find that a pretty unappealing prospect- we are supposed to be the Opposition.

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  6. On October 4, 2015 at 10:25 am Christabel Cooper responded with... #

    Scrapping Trident may well be a sensible policy, but it is not one that Labour can afford to have any truck with at the moment. The Tories, or even a Labour party led by Dan Jarvis (an ex soldier) might be able to have a debate on the subject which the electorate believed was genuinely based on the merits of Trident and whether Britain really needs it.

    But what they will see from Labour at the moment is an ideologically based policy from an inveterate peacenik, who wants to get rid of Trident because he personally doesn’t like nuclear weapons – regardless of whether it’s the right thing for Britain.

    Richard Angell is absolutely right to point out the contradiction in Corbyn’s rhetoric about wanting to have policy decided by the party, and then ignoring the party by continuing to press for scrapping Trident. Either he is really serious about having policy decided by committee and prepared to promote whatever policies come out of that process whether he agrees with them or not. Or he invokes the prerogative of a leader – and actually lead, sometimes in opposition to what the party wants. You can’t do both.

    • On October 6, 2015 at 5:50 pm Alex responded with... #

      I’m really confused by your point, Corbyn has consistently stated that he wants a DEBATE about Trident in the party, the NEC refused this. How is that Corbyn ignoring the parties wishes? The party could have a debate, vote against it and then if he continued to press for scrapping it then you would have a point, but that hasn’t happened.

  7. On October 12, 2015 at 4:14 pm Nick Draper responded with... #

    The bit that people miss out on in this debate is that there is a third alternative between scrapping Trident altogether and spending billions on a new one: just keep the one we’ve already got. For my part, it wouldn’t make any difference to me whether I was slaughtered by a shiny new WMD or an obsolescent one, the net result would be the same; and I expect that, looked at rationally, the same goes for most people. On the same basis, it won’t make any difference to me whether or not the British PM fires his/her missiles once someone else’s missile has killed me, so I can’t get too worked up over whether he/she does so or not: why not leave the PM the old, obsolescent one so at least he/she has the choice, however futile it may be? Job done, and barring the spiralling cost of replacing old printed circuit boards and buying rolls of gaffer tape, there would be plenty of dosh left over to spend on weapons people actually WANT to use. Is that too simple a solution?

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