Andrew Whitaker: Corbyn has to be smart on Trident

AFTER the revolt by Labour MPs over Syria, votes on renewal of the UK’s nuclear defence give their embattled leader a chance to improve his position, writes Andrew Whitaker

Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons debate on extending the bombing campaign against Islamic State to Syria. Picture: PA

The forces ranged against Jeremy Corbyn made as much as they possibly could of the split within Labour on the critical issue of the air strikes on Syria and the fact that 67 of the party’s MPs voted with the Tory government in support of military action.

Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn became a darling of parts of the British media overnight, as well as within sections of the party not well disposed towards Corbyn. Benn himself was not seeking to do anything other then express his own genuinely held belief and did go out of his way to praise Corbyn’s leadership. Labour’s unexpectedly decisive win in the Oldham and West Royton by-election after the Syria vote meant that the split – which manifested itself in a free vote among the party’s MPs – did not build up as big a head of steam as it could have.

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But it’s an issue that is almost certainly going to be replicated, in a Groundhog Day-like way, when the House of Commons votes on the renewal of Trident next year.

The large number of pro-Trident Labour MPs make such a rematch an inevitability, quite possibly on a bigger scale than the number who voted differently to the leadership over Syria.

There is already commentary in sections of the media about the pitfalls Corbyn may face next year, with the Trident issue chief among what his detractors doubtless hope will be a real banana skin for the Labour leader.

However, a bit of forward planning and a careful strategy to avoid any unforced errors could yet make the Trident issue less fraught for the Corbyn camp.

The launch of Labour’s defence review –being co-chaired by shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone – which is aimed at coming up with an agreed position that the party can unite behind, is already a sign of just such an approach.

Whether or not the process leads to UK Labour dropping its support for Trident, in the way the party in Scotland did last month, and brings it into line with Corbyn’s own anti-nuclear position, the Syrian air strikes vote in the Commons suggests that some Labours MPs will never accept such a stance. The vote on Trident renewal at Westminster, when it comes, will be one of the big flashpoints at Westminster of 2016, although as things stands the Tory majority and number of pro-nuclear Labour MPs make it likely that the weapons system will be renewed.

But once again, a well-thought-out strategy from Corbyn and his allies could at the very least allow the Labour leadership to promote an alternative to the nuclear weapons system and minimise any damaging party splits on the issue.

It’s a given that heavyweight figures from the Blair years – such as former cabinet ministers John Reid, Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett – will be quick to lay into Corbyn over the Trident issue. There are also those within Labour’s ranks who will support the renewal of Trident based entirely on principle and are not motivated in part by a desire to cause problems for a leadership they will never be reconciled to.

The nuclear weapons issue has always been a thorny one for Labour, with divisions in the party stretching back more than 50 years and the situation facing Corbyn next year is in that sense nothing new.

In postwar Britain right through to the early 1960s, a period that saw the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Labour probably had its most bitter splits on the issue.

So much so that at the 1960 Labour conference in Scarborough the then Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, vowed to “fight and fight and fight again to save the Party we love” after party members voted against his wishes to back a position of unilateralist disarmament.

At the 1983 General Election, former Labour prime minister James Callaghan rounded on his own party’s then policy in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament in what was seen as a highly damaging attack on the leadership of Michael Foot – a founder of CND.

Neil Kinnock also fought a successful battle, albeit one that provoked real opposition, to scrap Labour’s backing for unilterialism in the late 1980s.

The tensions within the party on the nuclear issue have in truth calmed somewhat in recent decades, with no Labour leader since Kinnock facing any major headaches on the issue, although opposition within Labour to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars took on huge significance.

Such tensions have always bubbled under the surface and those hostile to Corbyn within Labour will be hoping that mass opposition to the leadership among the party’s MPs, just months after the Syria split, will make it obvious that Corbyn’s days in charge are numbered.

But Corbyn could take the sting out of the situation by making it clear that Labour MPs will have a free vote on the issue, including those serving in the shadow cabinet.

Any attempt to instruct Labour MPs to follow a whip on the issue would be doomed whatever the Livingstone-Eagle defence review decides. That much is clear when you consider that it was initially suggested that MPs were expected to support the leadership line on Syrian air strikes.

Doubtless there will be all sorts of coverage highlighting how figures like deputy leader Tom Watson and Hilary Benn are taking a different position to the leader.

At least by stating the plan for a free vote now Corbyn would avoid the confusion of the Syrian air strikes issue, over which Corbyn was effectively forced to concede a free vote. By having an early game plan to make a strong case for scrapping Trident along with a properly costed and well thought-out plan to protect jobs at Faslane, one that’s not simply platitudes about diversification, Corbyn may come out of the episode well.

With backing for Trident – which many view as a relic of the Cold War – not what it once was both among Labour members and in the country at large, the party’s defence review convened by Livingstone and Eagle, who opposes unilateral nuclear disarmament, may also help make the issue easier to deal with for Corbyn.