Conniving with the Tories
The vote to renew Trident demonstrated that the Labour right will stop at nothing in their desire to be rid of Jeremy Corbyn, writes Peter Manson
On July 18 rightwing Labour MPs joined forces with the Tories in a blatant move to discredit their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. I am talking, of course, about the Commons vote to confirm the renewal of the Trident ‘deterrent’, by building four new submarines at an estimated cost of £205 billion.
From a practical point of view the vote was totally pointless. MPs were not being asked to authorise extra funding, but to endorse a renewal plan that was actually already in place. This led Tory MP Crispin Blunt to declare: “The truth is that this is a political weapon, effectively aimed against the Labour Party”. Absolutely correct. Blunt was the only Conservative who opposed the July 18 government motion, maintaining that Trident is based on “the defence economics, the politics and the strategic situation of three decades ago” - in other words, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But for the political establishment, including the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Britain’s membership of the ‘nuclear club’ is not about ‘defence’ or ‘deterrence’ at all. It is about maintaining the UK’s position in the global order - centrally as a key partner of the world hegemonic power, the United States. Accordingly, the government motion was carried overwhelmingly - by 472 votes to 117. Those in favour included no fewer than 140 Labour MPs - whose politics clearly have nothing whatsoever in common with the interests of the working class. They are, first and foremost, British nationalists, who favour British capital over and above that of its rivals.
To their credit, 47 Labour MPs voted against the motion, while a further 41 abstained. The abstainers were led by shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and her defence counterpart, Clive Lewis, who are amongst the Labour MPs normally supporting Jeremy Corbyn. Labour should treat the government and the vote “with the contempt they deserve”, they wrote, adding:
There is nothing new in this debate - a vote in principle was agreed in 2007 - and nothing whatsoever will happen as a result. It is being held simply to sow further divisions inside the Labour Party. The Tories know that those with strongly-held principles on either side of this debate will vote with their consciences, and the media will turn that into a fresh Labour crisis.1
However, still attempting to play down Labour’s internal divisions, the leadership under Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell decided to give their MPs a free vote. That allowed Corbyn himself to mount an attack against the obscenity of nuclear weaponry.
But, according to newly elected Conservative Party leader and prime minister Theresa May, “We cannot abandon our ultimate safeguard out of misplaced idealism.” So it is “misplaced idealism”, is it, to be opposed to that obscenity? As Corbyn himself correctly described Trident during the debate, it is an “indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction”. He added in his understated way: “I do not believe the threat of mass murder is an adequate way of dealing with international relations.”
Many Labour MPs heckled Corbyn and the right queued up to denounce him afterwards. John Woodcock said the decision to give Labour MPs a free vote was a “terrible indictment of how far this once great party has fallen”. Toby Perkins said his arguments were those of a “13-year-old”. Yes, only a child would baulk at launching a missile designed to kill tens of thousands of men, women and children at a single stroke.
Corbyn was accused by others of holding Labour members “in contempt” because the 2015 annual conference had voted for renewal. However, things are not that clear-cut. There was no specific vote on nuclear defence in Brighton, thanks to a behind-the-scenes agreement, but the members did vote in favour of the new foreign policy statement, ‘Britain in the world’, which included the following sentence: “We remain committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a continuous at-sea deterrent.”2
Even though there had been no conference debate on the ‘nuclear deterrent’ and no vote specifically about it, the rightwing Labour First immediately crowed in an email to its supporters: “If the rules are applied properly, this issue should not be considered by conference again until three years have elapsed!”
Showing his true colours, deputy leader Tom Watson, who had called for renewal, said afterwards that members of both Unite and the GMB who work in the nuclear industry would be “furious” with their union leaders for supporting Corbyn. In fact the GMB faces both ways on this issue - on the one hand, like most of the large TUC-affiliated unions, it is backing Corbyn; on the other, it favours Trident for no other reason that it is manufactured by its members.
In the words of GMB general secretary Tim Roache: “It’s not acceptable to play politics with our members’ livelihoods.” A good job the GMB did not organise concentration-camp guards in Nazi Germany - no doubt it would have condemned any move to close them down in the same terms.
But the GMB concentrated its fire on the Scottish National Party, whose 54 MPs voted unanimously against renewal - in fact all but one of the 59 Scottish parliamentary representatives were opposed to it. In a subsequent press release, Gary Cook, GMB regional officer and chair of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, said: “Just when we thought that thousands of good, high-value jobs were safe, the SNP and the Scottish political establishment show their utter contempt for Scottish workers and their families by putting their jobs on the line once again.” He added:
The decision to commit to build and maintain the Trident successor programme has been taken following a fair, democratic vote and it’s time for the whole Scottish political establishment to accept this fact, take it on the chin and live with it, or else risk further alienating thousands of workers in Scotland, whose futures depend on defence manufacturing.
Obviously, such statements are not driven by any desire to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. They are driven by crude and narrow sectionalism - nothing more. Why should the future of those thousands of workers have to depend on “defence manufacturing” - ie, the production of WMD? Isn’t brother Cook capable of thinking a little more broadly? How about introducing some politics, for instance?
And, as much as he would dispute it, his words play into the hands of not only the Labour right, but the Tories too.
3. GMB press release, July 19.