Labour's recent surge in the polls has provided much for the media and political analysts to ponder. The New Statesman's view that the 'stench of decay and failure coming from the Labour Party is now overwhelming', written all the way back in March 2017, now seems a distant memory. The national debate is changing on a near daily basis. At the time of writing, there has been three major terrorist incidents in as many months in the UK. The Prime Minister has had to reaffirm that the General Election will be going ahead on the date planned. Theresa May was able to assert her superiority on defence issues confidently as the Labour Party almost tore itself apart over what stance to take on matters of national security. The sight of Labour front bench colleagues publicly clashing with each other only assured the Conservatives' supremacy on defence. Labour looked set to commit itself to unilateral nuclear disarmament and a re-run of the controversial 1983 General Election manifesto pledge ('the longest suicide note in history') looked on the cards.
But then, Labour committed itself to renewing Trident in its election manifesto. Jeremy Corbyn, who only last year addressed a CND rally in Trafalgar Square themed, 'NHS - Not Trident', signed off on a manifesto that offered one vital sentence - 'Labour supports the renewal of the nuclear deterrent'. How does a left-wing pacifist reconcile himself to this policy position? The answer in one respect is that he hasn't. As evidenced in several interviews and the live Q&A on the BBC on Friday, Corbyn is cagey on discussing the nuclear issue and the all-important dilemma of 'pushing the button'. A better explanation is found by looking at the history of the Labour Party itself in the last seventy years. The party leader has returned to Labour's default position on the nuclear deterrent, and on defence more generally.
Firstly, the manifesto pledge to renew Trident aims to unify a divided party. The nuclear deterrent has divided Labour ever since Britain's first thermonuclear bomb was tested in 1957. The Labour left-wing was active in CND and achieved significant victories at the party conferences in 1960 and 1961 which threatened to commit the party to unilateral disarmament. This was passionately opposed by the Labour right-wing, with the leader of the party, Hugh Gaitskell, vowing to 'fight, and fight again' to resist the left. When Harold Wilson, a moderate left-winger, won the 1964 General Election, he immediately committed the Labour Government to continuing with Polaris - the precursor to Trident that was at that stage only a year into its construction. He did so by lying to the party, claiming that the Royal Navy informed him that Polaris was 'past the point of no return'. Party unity was Wilson's primary concern in his thirteen years as Labour leader. Such was the divisiveness of the nuclear question, he could not afford more faction-fighting.
This is very much the condition of Corbyn's Labour Party. But there are other motivations to renewing Trident. Should Teresa May's overall majority stay in the single figures, marginal constituencies will be vital. Labour's stance on defence has an impact on two constituencies especially: the Labour-held seat of Barrow-in-Furness, where the Trident successor system will be built; and Devonport, a Conservative held seat with a strong naval tradition. Both seats are held by the narrowest of margins - approximately 500 votes - and the impact of Labour committing to defence could be crucial. The attention given to Trident has obscured Labour's commitment to the other aspects of defence, such as conventional weapons and the defence industry. As a left-winger, Corbyn is on safer ground discussing these issues, just as Michael Foot tried to convince a sceptical electorate that a non-nuclear policy would work during the Cold War. Corbyn may find more success in arguing that more funding should be diverted to cyber warfare, intelligence and policing, while criticising the Conservative government's cancellations of HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier jump-jet, which was commissioned by the Labour government in the 1970s. The defence industry also resonates strongly in the manifesto, referencing the impact on the steel and shipbuilding industries without indulging any attempts to 'convert' defence production to commercial use - another policy from the Foot era. Labour has also proposed a 'Defence Industrial Strategy White Paper', which it acknowledges will 'provide good jobs down the supply chain'. Trident also happens to have a very considerable economic impact in the west of Scotland, and his could be a useful benefit in clawing back seats on Clydeside. Defence is not only a matter of keeping the country safe, especially during a General Election.
Historically, Labour has been responsible for initiating Britain's first atomic bomb, and committing ground forces in Korean War and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It devoted enormous sums of public expenditure to the military, especially in the Cold War. And while many of its rank and file are passionately engaged in pursuing disarmament, the majority of Labour voters believe in a strong defence policy. For all of the concern over his own beliefs, Corbyn's leadership represents continuity more than it does change.Suggest a correction