Will Trident damage Jeremy Corbyn's grassroots support?

The future of Britain's nuclear deterrent has fuelled an explosive row within the party

September 30, 2015
Their views on Britain's nuclear deterrent are often seen as symbolic of a politician's wider stance on defence. ©  PA/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Their views on Britain's nuclear deterrent are often seen as symbolic of a politician's wider stance on defence. © PA/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Divisions over Trident renewal have overshadowed the final day of Labour Party Conference, despite the party voting not to debate it. Instead a few words uttered on the Today programme was all it took to push the shadow cabinet’s buttons. The new Labour leader stated that he wasn’t willing to budge on his long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons, and said he would “never” use Britain's nuclear deterrent even if he became Prime Minister.

This sparked mutiny in his shadow cabinet, with the Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle describing his comments as “unhelpful” and his former leadership rival Andy Burnham threatening to quit if the party votes against renewal. Corbyn loyalist Diane Abbott, the Shadow Development Secretary, took to Twitter to rebuke Maria Eagle for her criticism of the leader's stance. The in-fighting which had been bubbling under all week finally exploded into the public domain.

Corbyn responded by reaffirming his anti-Trident position. When asked if he stood by his statement that he would not use nuclear weapons as Prime Minister, he replied: "Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that take out millions of civilians. They didn't do the USA much good on 9/11. The problems of this world are not huge wars in that way, the problems are much more from random acts of terrorism."

This show of strength from the leader comes after a shaky start. The highly anticipated Trident vote, which was scheduled to take place on Wednesday, was scrapped after only seven per cent of the 10,000 conference attendees voted in favour of debating it. Aside from party members, some trade unions are also opposed due to their focus on safeguarding the estimated 13,000 defence jobs that would go if Trident was binned.

Corbyn was also a notable no-show at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s fringe event on Monday night, disappointing the intriguing mix of policy wonks and ageing activists who squeezed into a small suite at Brighton’s rundown Mercure Hotel. Masquerading as a debate, it was in reality more of a rally with little discussion of the economic realities of getting rid of Trident. Despite his absence, the left’s new bearded messiah sent a message of support pledging to do his “persuadable best” to make opposition to Trident Labour party policy. If today’s performance is anything to judge by, the former backbench rebel still has a lot of work to do on improving his diplomatic skills.

There is also the question of how Corbyn’s grassroots supporters, such as those crammed into the CND meeting, will react if their great leader fails to further their cause. In this new world where identity politics reigns supreme, and the pragmatic pursuit of power is seen as abandonment of principle, opposition to Trident has acquired an added symbolic significance. If Corbyn is forced to backtrack on this issue to ease the growing divisions in his shadow cabinet, he risks alienating the true believers who put him in power.  A high profile defeat here, which weakened his much-trumpeted mandate, might provide his detractors within the parliamentary party with the opportunity to move against him.

"[Corbyn] is to some extent in a difficult position," said a CND spokesperson. "He is a leader of a party and all political parties have coalitions of people who broadly agree on some things and disagree on others, but as an individual he is very committed [to scrapping Trident]. I think it could be difficult for him if he is unable to persuade his party to agree with him... the grassroots are going to have work in tandem with him to make sure that Labour Party policy changes, and there is obviously some work involved in doing that."

Trident is fast becoming a pivotal and defining issue for the new-look Labour Party, with Scottish Labour set to have its own debate on renewal at its conference in October. For Corbyn it represents a test of how far he is willing to compromise on his principles for the sake of party unity and his own leadership. Paul Kenny, the GMB general secretary, said that Mr Corbyn would have to accept Labour's policy decision or resign: "He’s got a choice to make in terms of whether he followed the defence policy of the country, or felt that he should resign. His integrity would drive his decision one way or another."