1 Nov 2015

Jeremy Corbyn, unilateralism and Trident

Kezia Dugdale leader of the Scottish Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party acknowledge the delegates following his speech at the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth, Scotland

Scottish Labour voted 70/30 to go unilateral this afternoon. A big moment in Scottish party autonomy and quite a moment in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

But it’s also a moment to recall just how close the first Corbyn-led UK Labour Conference came to doing the same thing.

With the dull heading on “defence capabilities” competing for constituency delegates’ eyes at Brighton and with more striking “crisis” motions on mental health etc, there were longstanding tricks applied to keep the Trident debate off the floor.

There was also quite a lot of behind-the-scenes effort by figures working for Jeremy Corbyn to get it on the floor. And with good reason.

The widely-held assumption that unilateralists would’ve been defeated in a UK Labour conference at the end of September is not held by some of those close to Jeremy Corbyn.

The margin by which Trident didn’t make it onto the floor was pretty narrow: mental health, only narrowly above it, got debated instead.

Here are the topics the UK constituency Labour Parties chose with percentage support in the ballot:

Housing – 18.1 per cent

NHS – 15.93 per cent

Refugees – 15.87 per cent

Austerity – 11.38 per cent

Employment rights – 8.2 per cent

Mental health – 7.83 per cent

Defence (ie Trident) – 7.10 per cent

Social security – 5.61 per cent

Europe – 5.25 per cent

Rail – 2.62 per cent

Syria – 1.6 per cent

Licence fee – 0.76 per cent

If Trident had got debated, unilateralists had a cunning plan that could’ve ambushed the centre-right with a victory for unilateralism at the last minute, convulsing Labour even more only two weeks after Mr Corbyn’s election as leader.

Multilateralists thought they could safely rely on Unite to back their cause. The union’s policy is to oppose unilateralism until there are concrete pledges guaranteeing alternative employment for the workforces involved in relevant defence jobs.

BAE Systems workers stand on a walkway overlooking HMS Artful one of the Royal Navy's Astute class submarines as it approaches completion at the company's Barrow shipyard

But there was a plan to come up with a motion – in the form of an NEC statement – which Unite could comfortably support because it would be a close reflection of their exact policy.

This would’ve emerged relatively late in the day, catching the centre-right with, as it were, their defences down.

The successful unilateralist motion in Scotland did something similar and won the support of Scottish Unite delegates (though it was rubbished as offering no proper job security by Scottish GMB).

In Brighton it could’ve swung victory Jeremy Corbyn’s way decisively and rather than, as we are, sitting in a period of phoney war, opened up hostilities in full technicolour.

Some close to Mr Corbyn say it’s better that conflict has been deferred and the new leader has focused instead on repositioning the party on austerity and welfare. Others rue a moment missed and can’t wait to get full-scale engagement with hostile forces under way.

But senior Corbynistas are convinced that Labour UK very nearly did what Scottish Labour has just done at its conference in Perth.

In a statement many on the centre-right will think is veiled with menace, the Corbyn team said this afternoon: “The vote by the Scottish Labour Party Conference on Trident renewal and the protection of defence jobs is a clear sign that Labour’s democracy has opened up.

“Scottish Labour Party members have spoken. That will now feed into the wider UK Labour debate.”

Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter

Tweets by @garygibbonc4