With Jeremy Corbyn attempting to restart the moribund debate over the future of Britain’s nuclear weapons, Antony Tucker argues that this will hinder, not help, Labour’s cause.
The recent revival of the debate around Britain’s nuclear weapons, as instigated by new leader Jeremy Corbyn, has soured what should have been a honeymoon period for the new leadership team and Shadow Cabinet. With a fervent unilateralist at the head of the Labour Party, differences and rifts have come into the open, harming unity and damaging hopes of achieving traction in the struggle versus David Cameron’s Conservative government. Instead of making progress, the leadership has opened a can of worms.
Corbyn’s belief in the immorality of nuclear weapons is no cosmetic ploy – it has been a central prop of his entire political life. That is all well and good in a backbencher – a diverse party is a stronger party – but risks division and mixed messages when held by a leader. Corbyn’s comments in September that he would not “press the button” in any circumstances soured what should have been a fresh start for the party, mixing new messages with echoes of an unpopular and unelectable past. Complaining of interference from senior military figures has just sounded like sour grapes, and with widely respected figures such as Lord West threatening to resign over the issue, the pursuit of unilateralism by Corbyn and the far left has begun to look immature and self-serving.
Furthermore, despite defeats at the party conference (a unilateralist motion was rejected for debate) and the opposition of many of his Shadow Cabinet – including Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary – Corbyn continues to drag this increasingly pointless debate out. Airing dirty washing in public undermines the opposition’s image and unity: rather than co-ordinated, key messages aimed at the heart of Cameron’s administration, muddle and confusion are becoming the order of the day. That can only hinder Labour’s progress back into government – which has to be our single-minded ambition.
Scottish Labour’s rejection of Trident’s renewal at its recent conference, with the membership ignoring their local leadership and instead following Corbyn’s lead, has opened up a rift in the party that the Scottish Nationalists and Conservatives will be eager to exploit. If the Labour Party as a whole remains committed to Trident’s renewal, then Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalists will keenly condemn Scottish Labour as beholden to England and out of touch with Scots voters, further tightening the SNP’s stranglehold on debate and government north of the border. However, if Labour now performs an about-turn and opposes nuclear weapons, Cameron will be able to use the English nationalist tactics that worked so well during the general election, portraying his opponents as weak and unable to stand up to the SNP. Corbyn’s single minded obsession with unilateralism has resulted in Labour sleepwalking into a significant electoral own goal.
Focusing on unilateralism, at a time when the health and welfare systems are being crushed beneath the weight of Tory spending cuts has left the party appearing even more out of touch and unrealistic to the electorate. Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh South and Labour’s only MP in Scotland, summed this up perfectly; even though he is personally opposed to nuclear weapons, he considers the issues of housing and welfare to be far more important for his constituents. During months in which the media’s attention should have been on George Osborne’s plans to demolish tax credits and certain pig related allegations surrounding the prime minister, Corbyn has distracted from a debate that is key to the daily lives of millions of ordinary people in order to selfishly pursue a personal ambition. With less than a fifth of the British people in favour of scrapping nuclear weapons, the Labour Party cannot risk a divisive debate over a topic that will repel more voters than it can ever attract.
If Corbyn seeks a lesson in leadership and policy debates, he should look no further than Neil Kinnock’s example. Following Labour’s third successive defeat in 1987, Kinnock launched “Labour Listens”, a mass public campaign to inform a major policy review. Rather than falling back on traditional beliefs, the party leadership had the bravery to explore new ideas and to reconnect with the real hopes of the British people. As a result, many of the unviable programmes formulated by the far left in the early 1980s – including unilateral disarmament – were ditched, and Labour began to close in on power, eventually secured a decade later.
Convincing the British people to utterly reverse their support for nuclear weapons, held for over half a century, in less than five years is simply impossible. Corbyn, an experienced politician, needs to display the maturity that should come with his age and accept this. Rattling on about unilateral disarmament will at best be an embarassment for Labour; at worst, it will divide and humiliate the party, locking us out of power. We must form a united front, hammering away at the government and addressing the demands of the British people as defined by the people themselves, not fritter away our media time on pointless debates that sap our collective energy and go nowhere, only serving to underline the party’s current lack of power. Corbyn will never be in favour of nuclear weapons, and he should not perfom some sort of “road to Damascus” conversion, but should accept the verdict of Britain with the grace and judgement expected of an adult. Politicians mustn’t lie – but sleeping dogs should.