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Why is the Labour Party dragging its heels on nuclear disarmament?

Corbyn just won a prize for peace activism - so why is the Labour Party still committed to renewing trident? Lily Sheehan investigates.

December 13, 2017
6 min read

Jeremy Corbyn speaking at an anti-drones rally.

Jeremy Corbyn was recently awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize by the International Peace Bureau for his ‘sustained and powerful political work for disarmament and peace.’ The Bureau commended his work with the the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition.’ Fitting, seeing as the leader of the opposition cut his teeth in anti-imperialist and anti-war organising. But with Corbyn at the helm, it remains puzzling why those commitments haven’t translated into policy priorities. Labour continue to support the wasting of £205 billion on Trident replacement. So why isn’t the peace movement, a cause very close to Corbyn’s heart, getting a look-in? How can we ensure that such an important cause receives the recognition it deserves?

Having joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as a schoolboy in 1966, Corbyn became both Vice-Chair of the CND and Chair of the Stop the War Coalition during his time as a backbencher. Gaining a reputation for his activism, he became Labour’s most rebellious Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2010, defying the party whip a staggering 428 times. Meanwhile, the establishment Labour Party did not share his passion for peace. With New Labour not wanting to rock the boat, the party decided to take the same side as their Conservative opponents and support the destruction of lives through support of the Iraq War and nuclear weapons. Former Shadow Cabinet Minister Tristram Hunt called the Stop the War Coalition ‘a really disreputable organisation’, whilst MP Caroline Flint said that the organisation were ‘not Labour’s friends’.

 

One might assume that, despite such a difference in opinion fracturing the party, a massive overhaul would take place after Corbyn’s meteoric rise to power. But, bogged down by internal conflicts and lacking support, Corbyn was unable to tackle such a huge problem. In their 2017 General Election manifesto, Labour supported the renewal of the Trident fleet, under the apparent constraints of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Corbyn has made no secret of his opposition to this stance, and it was one of the key issues of this year’s General Election. On a Question Time election special in May, audience member Adam Murgatroyd told the Labour leader that he was concerned about his anti-’first strike’ stance. This rabidly militaristic attitude, was rife in this particular audience. His competence as a politician seemingly lived and died on whether or not he would commit to murdering millions of people and sparking a possible nuclear holocaust. The reigning illogic was that only a fool unfit for office would want to avoid such a fate.

Even in our turbulent world, it is difficult to imagine a situation where Britain would come under ‘imminent threat’, with all other avenues of resolution exhausted. This overdramatic, faux-heroic attitude is holding the anti-nuclear discussion back and endangering us all. As another Question Time audience member said: why are Britons ‘so obsessed with murdering millions of people?’

For some, it is beyond the scope of the public imaginary to move away from nuclear weapons. But the public is rather less committedly militaristic than one might suppose. In 2016, an ORB poll of UK adults found that 49% of those surveyed did not support the full renewal of Trident. In Scotland, where the fleets are actually located, opposition was at 64%. Being anti-nuclear weapons is hardly an unpopular opinion. Rather than being purely an issue of public opinion, this is rather a question of how the Labour establishment is beholden to a fictional public who unanimously crave a nuclear arms race, and who will brook no argument that peace talks and disarmament are preferable to, say, the destruction of civilisation as we know it. Whilst Momentum and Corbyn have made great successes by arguing against the ‘common senses’ of austerity and privatisation, the Parliamentary Labour Party are still fearful of straying outside the narrow centrist bounds of what they presume voters want. This is a self-reinforcing cycle. Politicians fear that no one wants disarmament, so none dare make the case publicly for fear of being ridiculed and shown ‘unfit for office’. For years, there has been a pro-nuclear consensus within the UK’s main political parties. How are voters meant to show their opposition to nuclear weapons when a party does not provide them with such an option?

Perhaps when it comes to forcing disarmament onto the political agenda, we could simply wait for a demographic shift; support for nuclear weapons is lowest amongst young people. A 2014 poll by ComRes showed that just 19% of 18-35 year olds polled believed that Trident should be renewed at equal size and capacity. Hannah Cornford, of WMD Awareness, said of the poll: ‘it is clear that young potential voters are not being engaged by the government on this issue.’ Last month, the Young Labour Conference passed a motion saying that the United Kingdom should leave NATO, an idea that is in direct contradiction with the party line. Young people dislike nuclear weapons and are not afraid to disagree with establishment opinion; this is a recipe for progress in the peace movement in the coming years.

Another, less delayed possibility for progress comes from the Labour Party itself. The Party is currently undergoing a self-imposed Democracy Review. A leaked document, apparently concerning this review, shows that they are keen to strengthen the involvement and participation of members in constituencies. If this is true, a structural shift could make Labour more ready to listen to pro-peace members, and allow them to affect party policy. The PLP can no longer appeal to a false spectre of ‘public opinion,’ when this ‘opinion’ is contradicted by the democratic wishes of party members. We have seen this pattern before: greater democratisation of the party means that the membership can win the argument, shifting party policy leftwards and bringing the wider public with them. It happened with the anti-austerity movement, it happened with the free education movement, and it must happen again with the peace movement. The issue of nuclear weapons is pressing and potentially a matter of life and death; unlike these internal divisions in the Labour Party, it cannot be brushed aside.

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