In recent weeks it has been difficult to think of the Labour Party without thinking of Karl Marx. This is not to endorse tabloid sensationalism or suggest that the party’s next conference will be spent discussing the finer points of historical materialism, but rather to reflect on Marx’s 1852 maxim that history repeats itself “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the party’s current travails over Trident.
Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is a Labour creation. In October 1946, Ernest Bevin, perhaps Labour’s greatest Foreign Secretary, told his colleagues “we’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs…we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.” In late 1952, some 18 months after Bevin’s death, Operation Hurricane saw the first successful test of the new device.
For nearly a decade Labour held together on the issue, but divisions lurked below the surface. These gained new traction following the 1958 founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament by activists including Bertrand Russel and Michael Foot.
Despite then-leader Hugh Gaitskell’s protests, a unilateralist ‘policy on peace’ was carried at the 1960 party conference. The vote, though overturned in 1961, marked a schism that resonates today. Though the grassroots often railed against nuclear weapons, their representatives were more politically astute, recognising how toxic unilateralism was at the ballot box: a theory proven in 1983 and 1987, the only occasions on which Labour have sought election on a unilateralist platform.
The 1980s remain a watershed in Labour’s history. Following defeat in 1979, the party entered a period of introspective naval gazing and internecine warfare as moderate MPs like Denis Healey, found themselves pitted against the combined forces of the left, united behind Tony Benn. Such jousts had only one winner: Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.
In this febrile environment unilateralism became a key demand for the grassroots Labour-left, which took action to proclaim it however possible. In 1981, Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council, declared London a “nuclear-free zone” and halted its annual spending on nuclear war defence plans. Such actions were manna for Fleet Street, where lurid columns on the ‘Loony Left’ became commonplace.
In 1989, recognising the electoral toxicity of unilateralism, Neil Kinnock secured support for bipartisanship – a victory upon which successive Labour leaders and governments have built. Indeed, as recently as six months ago Labour’s position on Trident seemed clear, yet, the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn has thrown it into doubt.
Corbyn is a life-long member of the CND and has voted against continuing Britain’s nuclear programme on every occasion since entering Parliament in 1983. He has also been a central part of the London left since the 1970s and is close to Ken Livingston, who was recently appointed to lead Labour’s Defence Review. Tellingly the leader’s office includes no less than three of Livingston’s former staffers, all of whom have ties to Socialist Action, the self-declared “revolutionary arm of the Labour Party.”
Corbyn has shown no desire to change direction on this issue of fundamental importance to the Labour left. On September 30 he rued out ever using a nuclear weapon should he become Prime Minister, he encouraged delegates at Labour’s Scottish Conference to vote in support of unilateralist motion and, latterly, appointed Emily Thornberry, who shares his position on nuclear weapons as Shadow Defence Secretary. Importantly, Corbyn has also suggested that polling members on the future of Trident was an option under consideration.
Externally, such moves demonstrate determination on the leader’s part to move to a unilateralist position, one that is likely to be supported by the rank and file membership. However, there remain two bulwarks to unilateralism.
The first are the structures of the Labour Party. Although many new converts to Corbynism may not recognise it, Labour is an inherently conservative organisation; one wedded to protocol in how it makes its decisions. General Secretary Iain McNicol recently told MPs that any changes to the rule book would need to be agreed at party conference, after the expected vote on Trident’s future in June, and there seems to be little appetite for any change to this from the party’s upper echelons.
Corbyn’s position is also far from the mainstream in Parliament and is backed by just a handful of shadow ministers, including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. Using atypical means to change policy on an issue of such importance poses a threat to Corbyn’s leadership and could spark a palace coup against him.
Second, and most important is the trade union movement, particularly Unite and the GMB. Labour’s first and third largest donors respectively, these unions hold two seats each on the party’s National Executive Committee and represent workers in the defence sector. Pulling no punches, GMB General Secretary Sir Paul Kenny has already warned that “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 swannied away by rhetoric then they’ve got another shock coming.”
Although Corbyn can count on support from smaller unions like the CWU and FBU, they lack the strength needed to countenance the GMB and Unite’s political muscle. Though the latter backed his leadership campaign, General Secretary Len McCluskey has questioned whether he can deliver and urged the Union’s executive to support Andy Burnham for leader. Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison – the second largest affiliated union – is also skeptical of Corbyn’s position and, having won re-election in December, may feel secure enough to begin manoeuvres against him should splits emerge over Trident.
In the 1980s Labour came back from the brink of electoral destruction thanks in large part to the efforts of the trade union movement. While trade union leaders are sometimes caricatured as unreconstructed Marxists this is seldom the case. They are, if anything, pragmatists, determined to represent their members and to establish a government favourable to their interests.
If Jeremy Corbyn launches a civil war over Trident the likelihood of a Labour government in 2020 will fall dramatically, giving the Conservatives a free hand to further diminish the labour movement’s power. Though unilateralism helped to shape his political identity, Corbyn would be unwise to try and force it upon the party. To do so would not be a tragic repeat of the 1980s, but a farce from which Labour may struggle to recover.