General lessons from Labour’s fight on Trident

By Jo Green

The issue of Trident is a major one itself. But Labour’s recent and continuing dispute on Trident also has key general lessons.

Trident is a gigantically expensive irrelevance

First it is necessary to examine the objective character of Trident. Trident is a gigantically expensive irrelevance which has nothing to do with it being an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. Britain could never be engaged in a nuclear war alone – and anyone who believes Trident could even function technically without the US is completely naïve.

Trident can only remain operational with the agreement and participation of the US. And despite the alleged British independent ‘nuclear button’ controlling launch of the missiles, the reality is that the maximum which exists is the independence not to fire them. If the US did not agree to a British proposal to launch the missiles then it could deny access to the American systems on which it relies. The USA would never actually allow Trident to be used without its agreement, and to believe otherwise is to lack any real understanding of how international politics and military relations work.

Trident is therefore not an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent but purely one that can technically operate with the permission of the US. And if the US needed nuclear weapons to be used, it possesses such an arsenal of these it does not need Britain’s.

Indeed, from a military point of view Trident is a complete diversion. It would have been useless in the real military conflicts British imperialism has engaged in – such as the bombing of Iraq, Libya and Syria. ISIS and other such forces should undoubtedly be enthusiastically in favour of Trident as it substantially reduces the amount of military resources that Britain can actually deploy against them.

It is precisely because it is a diversion from any real wars British imperialism might want to fight that even a significant body of military opinion is against it.

Trident’s sole real function is to tie Britain firmly into a subordinate political/military relation with the US. It is irrelevant to any real military issue – but hugely expensive. The Ministry of Defence estimates suggest that the whole-of-life cost of building and running the Trident submarine system will be a staggering £167bn in total, including the £31-£41bn set aside for the initial capital costs. The running costs are estimated to be around 6% of the total defence budget.

This reality, that Trident is a gigantically expensive irrelevance, has to determine both the strategy and tactics of the left towards it.

Reasons for confusion in the fight on Trident

The fact that Trident is incredibly costly to build, and because its sole real purpose is to tie Britain into a subordinate relation with the US, means it should be opposed.

But also because it has no purpose means that this issue is not so immediately clarified or urgently understood by the mass of people, and Labour members and supporters, as the actual wars that British imperialism proposes to engage in. The issue of Trident remains abstract for the mass of the population; they are not in the present situation driven by any real fear that it may actually be used or that it may make Britain itself a nuclear target – which drove the opposition to Cruise missiles in the 1980s. The dangers of Trident remain abstract, opaque and its real consequences not so well understood.

This is also why support for Trident in the labour movement – however absurd this may seem given that Trident plays no useful role in the real defence strategies of this country – is actually stronger than the support for bombing Syria let alone austerity.

Despite the right’s ecstatic support for Hilary Benn’s endorsement of Tory war-mongering in Syria, Corbyn’s anti-war position was a majority in the Labour Party, the Shadow Cabinet and the PLP. It is not at all clear that there is such strong support for Corbyn’s opposition to Trident. Moving Maria Eagle out of defence in the reshuffle strengthened the anti-Trident position in the Shadow Cabinet, but the majority probably remains in favour of Trident. And the balance of forces in the PLP is unclear.

This is also why there are forces in the trade unions, and not just on the right, who are unclear on or are lined up to support Trident.

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, has been outspoken in his commitment to campaign to maintain Labour’s support for Trident. While Kenny and the GMB did not endorse Corbyn in the leadership election, others, such as Len McCluskey and UNITE, which did support Corbyn, are also opposed to cancelling Trident without adequate guarantees for the defence workers’ jobs that would be lost. A number in reality are opposed to cancelling Trident under any practical conditions.

The proposal at the 2015 Labour conference to prioritise motions opposing Trident only won the support of around a third of the CLP delegates and almost no unions. It is true that most of these delegates were elected before the ‘Corbyn surge’, but the fact they did not prioritise Trident is indicative of the problems on the issue.

In other words, precisely because it is a more abstract question, not a burning issue of the immediate class struggle, there is more support for Trident in the wider labour movement than on some other ‘difficult’ issues. It is around directly practical issues, such as tax credits or bombing Syria, that the population and Labour members most clearly understand issues.

This is precisely why the Labour right now wants to pose the issue of Trident as the decisive one in the Labour Party. They want to present it as ‘Corbyn or Trident’; to try to make this the decisive issue for the future of the leadership.

Tactics in the Labour Party

It is therefore necessary to think very clearly about tactics. There are indeed matters on which the only correct response would be to accept the challenge, and for the Corbyn leadership to agree that ‘you can have that policy or me not both’. This would clearly be the response if the drive of the right was to demand Labour supported austerity, or racist measures for example. But precisely because Trident is a grotesque irrelevance – and sadly for exactly that reason it may be difficult to gain a majority in the Party against it – it should not be accepted that this is an issue of ‘you can have this policy or Jeremy Corby’s leadership but not both’.

It is entirely correct for the left and Corbyn to fight very strongly to win the policy against Trident in the Labour movement. But this fight should be conducted in such a way that accepts that support for Trident extends into the camp of Corbyn’s supporters – as with Unite for example – and therefore does not make it a line in the sand between allies and enemies in the labour movement. The left has to stand and fight, and can win, on the most urgent and practical issues in the struggle. It will not win on every important issue if it appears abstract and not immediately practical.

What does this mean in practice? One such issue will be how the debate in the Party is conducted.

Formally the current position of the Labour Party is in favour of replacing Trident. But this policy was last voted on at before the current review of the policy was decided on. As indicated above, the 2015 conference declined to revisit the matter when given the option.

This is why Jeremy Corbyn launched a policy review on Trident. However, as the existing policy was adopted by a conference of the Party, under the existing rules the outcome of this review – if it is different – cannot become formal Labour Party policy until it also has adopted by a conference. Following suggestions that the issue might be put to a ‘referendum’ or poll of Labour members, Iain McNichol, general secretary of the Labour Party, made his view of the Labour Party rules clear to a meeting of the PLP on 12 January. He said that any policy change had to be agreed at the Party’s autumn conference, and that any change in rules to allow policy to be determined by a membership referendum would similarly have to be first agreed by conference.

The significance of this is not that Labour conference is more or less likely to endorse a change of policy than a poll of members. Nor is a referendum in principle more ‘democratic’ than the conference. A Labour Party conference decision is just the only way to decide policy on the issue.

But this does create an issue of timing. With the next key Parliamentary vote on Trident due before the summer recess, it means it will take place in a context where Labour’s formal policy remains pro-Trident, while its elected leader is against and a defence policy review is underway. It is not reasonable to demand Labour MPs are whipped on Trident when a review is taking place. This is why at present a range of forces are moving towards a free vote in Parliament on the issue – and, practically, given the timing this is the only thing that can take place. There is no way to determine what is the majority on this issue in Labour until after the review and a conference vote.

If a free vote occurs it will be experienced as a huge disappointment by the movement against nuclear weapons and many of those that supported Corbyn in his fight for the leadership. Particularly as this next vote will authorise large contractual financial commitments to Trident making it much harder to unravel the policy in the future.

But it is vital that all these forces look at the situation confronting Corbyn realistically. That means understanding the relationship of forces. Jeremy Corbyn cannot undemocratically push through policies which are not supported by the majority of Labour members. On Syria it was clear that the majority of Labour Party members, the majority of the PLP, and the majority of the Shadow Cabinet were against the bombing. That is why Hilary Benn should not have had the right to present a pro-bombing line and indeed why he should not be Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary – even if when he is removed is a tactical issue. But equally Jeremy Corbyn has to accept whatever is the majority in Labour on Trident – except today nobody knows what that majority is. That is why a free vote of MPs when Trident comes up is the only possible solution.

It is vital that the Trident review and debate is conducted in the most objective way, with the clearest arguments presented, in order to have the best chance of the right outcome. Anything that can be presented as attempting to buck this democratic process will weaken Corbyn and the case to cancel Trident.

It is necessary to argue against Trident for all the reasons analysed at the beginning of this article. But those saying a new policy on Trident would have to go to Labour conference before it can be enforced on the PLP are correct.

General conclusions

Trident also illustrates general lessons. Until the middle of the 19th century, until the defeat of Chartism, Britain had the most advanced mass labour movement in the world. That was then thoroughly derailed by the rise of modern British imperialism. The British working class was told the deal with British imperialism was the following – ‘we will militarily attack foreigners, promote domestic racism, and your living standard will go up’. Very regrettably the majority accepted that deal – until by the second half of the 19th century as Marx and Engels remarked the working class on such issues, apart from a small minority, thought in the same way as the ruling class.

But in the last decade British imperialism and the Tories explained we can now only offer the following deal: ‘we will militarily attack foreigners, we will practice domestic racism, and due to austerity your living standard will go down or stagnate’. That deal is not acceptable to the mass of the working class in the same way. Because the Labour right essentially proposed the same deal as British imperialism and the Tories they were rejected in the Labour leadership contest.

Jeremy Corbyn offered a different deal. He proposed: ‘We will not attack foreigners, we will not practice racism, and we will oppose austerity and your living standards will go up.’ That alternative deal inspired hundreds of thousands of people to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, and gains the support of millions of people in the trade unions.

But it will take time for the mass of the working class to adjust to this new way of understanding the world. They will only do so around practical and burning issues – not around abstract or apparently abstract arguments. The forces around Corbyn can and must win the fight on these immediate issues – such as tax credits, Syria or austerity. If they are forced to fight on these and they lose they cannot avoid that fight. But they cannot and will not win on every issue and the less practical and immediate it appears the less chance they have of winning. They cannot cheat an entire historical process.

That is the tactical lesson on Trident and also on every other issue.