Labour should concede on Trident and vote for renewal
by Ben D-T
From the outset, I believe it’s important to make my views on the issue on Trident renewal clear. I do not think the UK, or any nation, should have nuclear weapons and I do not think the UK should renew it’s Trident nuclear system. I also believe that Labour should abandon the idea of coming out against Trident renewal or holding a free vote and should vote with the government to renew the Trident nuclear system.
The simple reason for this argument is that, regardless of what Labour do, Trident will be renewed. The Tory majority will pass Trident renewal in a Commons vote. That isn’t pessimism, it’s pragmatism. Jeremy Corbyn will at some point have to choose one of three options for the party when a vote on Trident comes up in the Commons, which will almost certainly be before Labour’s defence policy review is completed.
His first option is to whip a vote against Trident renewal. This is the most ill fated of Corbyn’s options. If he were to instruct MPs to vote against renewal Corbyn would not just lose the vote, he would divide his party and face resignations from the front bench. The potential embarrassment of at least Andy Burnham’s resignation should be enough to put Corbyn off whipping to vote against renewal. Not to mention that the Tory attack that Labour are soft on defence, which seems like something that could stick, would be turned up to 11 and shouted from every Tory rooftop in the land for the next four years.
Jeremy Corbyn is sensible enough to realise this and seems very unlikely to whip for an anti-renewal vote from Labour MPs. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Corbyn will allow MPs to take a free vote, this, in theory, will avert a high profile party division while allowing Corbyn and other anti-Trident MPs to stick to their principles. I don’t believe this is the correct path to take. When Corbyn conceded a free vote on air strikes in Syria last year it led to Hillary Benn tearing into his leader’s stance against air strikes in devastating and extremely embarrassing fashion.
Over Syria a majority of the Shadow Cabinet supported Corbyn and voted against the government motion. On Trident, Corbyn will likely not receive the same support, a majority of Labour frontbenchers are expected to vote to renew Trident, Andy Burnham has said he will resign if asked to vote against. The only conceivable reason to carry out a free vote is to allow Corbyn and other anti-Trident MPs to stick to their principles. This, in my view, is blind stubbornness. Trident will be renewed, you could bet your life on that. So for Corbyn to carry out a free vote would expose splits in his party over an issue that the Tories can use to brand Labour as a threat to Britain’s security.
Divided parties do not win elections. If the Labour leadership grant another free vote the Tories will be given multiple examples to point to when accusing Labour of being divided and disorganised. That’s why, reluctantly, I believe Labour should vote to renew Trident. To try and get MPs to vote against would be electoral suicide, to have a free vote would be weak and show division, to vote for Trident would be the most face-saving way out of the potential mess that Trident presents. The membership of the party likely do not want to see Labour vote for Trident renewal. But the general public, the electorate, do. It may not be seen as a particularly important issue, but most people still believe Britain should have nuclear weapons. To vote for Trident renewal would be electorally popular and limit the scope of Tory attacks on the state of the Labour party. There are no easy ways out of the Trident debacle for the Labour party, but this, in my eyes, is the best of the lot.
Do I actually believe this will happen though? Will Jeremy Corbyn actually vote for something he has campaigned against his entire political life? No, of course he won’t. Corbyn’s principled nature, which at times could be his biggest asset, is now one of his biggest problems. With a party and a country that want Trident to be renewed and an upcoming Commons vote that will, without doubt, be won by the government, I believe Corbyn is left with one choice to make. Stick to his own principles, or compromise.
Anyone hoping to be elected must, at some point, compromise on some issues. The upcoming vote on Trident renewal, which will likely come before Emily Thornberry has finished Labour’s defense policy, is Corbyn’s chance to show he is willing to compromise, something he seems to have done very rarely in his political career. There is no point dividing the Labour party, or presenting the party as weak and divided, over an issue that is already decided.
I’m a Labour party member, and I don’t want Trident to be renewed. But it will be renewed, however much I, Jeremy Corbyn, or a a few hundred thousand other members call for it not to be. I want to see Labour back in government in 2020, and I believe that taking the pragmatic approach on Trident is one way to start the very long journey towards that goal.