Disarmament might have been electoral suicide 35 years ago, but Corbyn’s rise shows voters are open to persuasion, says PETER KIRKER
BARON GOULD of Brookwood, who brought us government by focus group, must be turning in his splendid tomb (the most lavish addition to Highgate Cemetery in the modern era). And yet Jeremy Corbyn’s conviction politics is actually beginning to work.
Instead of constantly shuffling to “where the votes are,” he has this crazy way of just holding to his principles and persuading voters to join him on the ground he’s stood on all his life. And it turns out that such integrity is extremely resilient to anything the mainstream media can throw at it.
No surprise then that in the recent election campaign Labour’s only serious policy wobble related to the one part of its manifesto that was squarely at odds with Corbyn’s convictions.
The manifesto commitment is unequivocal: “Labour supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.” Yet the whole world must know by now that Corbyn is equally unequivocal in his hostility to Trident, and indeed to all weapons of mass destruction.
This policy-conviction mismatch brought an awkward moment for Corbyn himself, and a public put-down for the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — which must have been hard to take, coming as it did from defence shadow secretary Nia Griffith.
And there was more fallout post-election, when it was reported that Corbyn had given voice to his personal view in a chat with the Glastonbury organiser Michael Eavis.
Rather than leave Corbyn exposed to no-marks like Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who accuses him of saying one thing in public and another in private, it’s time Labour got squarely behind its leader and allowed him to lead, even on the highly emotive issue of nuclear weapons.
He has already demonstrated his powers of persuasion across a range of contentious issues. And with public opinion now more finely balanced than it has ever been, he could carry the day on Trident too.
Disarmament might have been electoral suicide 35 years ago, but not now, with the Greens and SNP having already opened doors to the debate.
The arrival of a maverick novice in the White House has brought Angela Merkel to a realisation that Germany must develop its own defences. Yet there is no clamour to do that with weapons of mass destruction.
In the event that Berlin were annihilated in a nuclear attack, Germany could retaliate with little more than sticks and stones.
Many scores of countries live with the same vulnerability. But there is no unrest in the streets because of it.
They know, as indeed we in Britain know, that there are more pressing threats, threats against which nuclear bombs are no defence.
One weakness of the deterrence principle is its assumption, even in this age of suicide bombers, that any would-be aggressor will be rational.
If an aggressor were irrational — and plenty have been down the years — the threat of mutually assured destruction is rendered as mad as its acronym.
Even if, say, London were annihilated on some crackpot leader’s whim, where would be the morality in killing millions of innocent people in reprisal?
But Trident capability is not even confined to tit-for-tatting; it’s supposed to be a deterrent, yet comes with first-strike options specifically built in. Why those options should be needed is not immediately clear, though it might allow Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and CO a bit of extra swagger on the world stage.
If Labour were to bite the Trident bullet now, there would be time to include its revised policy in the next manifesto, even if another general election is nearly upon us.
Howl as the Daily Telegraph surely would, several of the nation’s senior military commanders would not, especially if some of the colossal savings were redirected to conventional capability and better terms and conditions for those who serve. Beyond that, the wider electorate — thanks in no small part to a huge influx of enthused and energised young voters — is open to persuasion as never before.
The leader’s greatest challenge is the Labour Party itself, in particular a significant element within the trade union movement that is quite properly concerned about jobs. (Unison and several other unions are already CND affiliates.) Unite could be won round: my guess is that its general secretary Len McCluskey is privately on board already, but constrained by his national executive. GMB however is a serious obstacle.
For sure, many thousands of jobs are at risk but there is no morality in this argument, as evidenced in the reality that no trade unionist would advance it to justify a poison-gas industry or the manufacturing of torture equipment.
Moreover the unions that oppose unilateral disarmament to protect jobs profess at the same time to support multilateral disarmament which would cost those same jobs.
The affected unions are however more than justified in emphasising the huge social challenge that would result from abandoning Trident renewal.
When it was first argued, years ago, that this could be met by investment in high-skill renewable energy technology, the prospects for a serious renewables industry seemed a far-off dream. But more recently we have seen the dream becoming reality.
And with Donald Trump’s hostility to the green agenda now discouraging US investment, Britain is ideally placed to take a world-leading role.
There will be no shortage of anti-Trident motions submitted by constituency Labour parties to the autumn conference. It just remains to be seen whether those unions that are hostile can be persuaded to hold back enough to allow this huge issue the debate it deserves. Let’s hope so. Let us hope that 28 years after the Berlin wall came down we can at last start turning swords into ploughshares.