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.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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