For six decades, British governments have considered unilateral nuclear disarmament unthinkable — but the once-unthinkable is the Labour Party’s new normal. Britain’s main opposition party has just elected a leader from the radical left, and this week party members may commit a future Labour government to scrapping Britain’s Trident nuclear arms program.
It’s the latest signal that new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is prepared to consider policies that were off the agenda for decades, from nationalizing industry to diverging on foreign policy from the United States.
“I want us to fulfill our obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” Corbyn said Sunday, as Labour’s annual conference opened in the seaside resort of Brighton — with a debate on nuclear weapons scheduled for the first time in many years. “Hence non-renewal of Trident.
“This is a weapon of mass destruction.”
The conference debate is a victory for anti-nuclear activists like Kate Hudson, secretary-general of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who says a vote to scrap nuclear arms would bring Labour policy “in line with the needs of the age — and of the British people.”
But it’s a source of despair for Labour centrists, who think the party faces electoral oblivion under Corbyn.
John McTernan, a former aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair, argues that nuclear weapons are “deeply and broadly supported” by British voters.
“So to make the centerpiece of your first conference a turn towards unilateralism is a resounding signal to the public that you don’t want to be a party of government,” he said.
The divide between pro- and anti-nuclear forces has long been a fault-line in the Labour Party. It was Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s Labour government that developed atomic weapons in the years following World War II, making Britain the world’s third nuclear-armed state after the United States and the Soviet Union.
Every British government since then — Labour, Conservative or coalition — has maintained nuclear weapons. Since the 1990s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent has consisted of four Royal Navy submarines armed with Trident missiles.
Labour briefly adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament under leader Michael Foot, whose election-losing 1983 party manifesto was described by one Labour lawmaker as “the longest suicide note in history.”
Labour’s 1980s defeats led Blair and other young leaders to create “New Labour,” repositioning the party as patriotic, pro-business and strong on defense. They also centralized control over communications and decision-making, turning Labour conferences from heated policy-making meetings to slick political pep rallies.
New Labour won three consecutive elections from 1997, but the party lost power in 2010 and was trounced by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in a May election that focused largely on perceptions of economic competence.
Party members reacted by turning away from Blairism, derided by those on the left as “Tory-lite” policies. This month Labour elected Corbyn, a 66-year-old backbench lawmaker who promises to combine old-school socialism with a new style of politics.
He is a sharp critic of Blair-era pro-business economics and international military engagements — notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and advocates more grassroots democracy in the party. Corbyn has confirmed that if conference delegates vote to scrap Trident, it will become Labour policy.
That could commit Labour lawmakers to back disarmament when Parliament decides next year how to replace the aging Trident system — a stance many legislators would find hard to stomach.
The outcome of the conference vote is hard to predict. Corbyn is a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons, but several in his top team disagree. Labour foreign affairs spokesman Hilary Benn told the BBC last week that he wanted to see a nuclear-free world, “but I don’t believe for one second that if Britain were to give up its deterrent any other of the nuclear states would give theirs up.”
And trade unions, whose votes carry half the weight at Labour conferences, could be reluctant to endanger thousands of skilled jobs.
“The most important thing for us is jobs and the defense of communities,” said Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union.
Richard Whitman, an associate fellow at international affairs think-tank Chatham House, said whichever way it goes, the nuclear debate is a “tectonic-plate moment” for Labour.
“I think the vote outcome is less important than the disagreements it will publicly expose,” he said. “Defense and security has been an issue that the Labour Party has been very, very keen to keep mainstream, certainly since the 1980s.”
Corbyn’s supporters say the nuclear debate is a chance for Labour to embrace a new kind of radical politics that will draw in disillusioned voters.
McTernan and other centrists think it will have the opposite result.
“Having lost an election by being economically incredible, the Labour Party now proposes to be incredible, unbelievable and unsafe on national security,” he said.