Jeremy Corbyn has suffered a major blow to his authority after a bid by the Labour leadership to press for a vote on the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme was overwhelmingly rejected at the party’s conference.
Hours after the opening of the event in Brighton, Britain’s largest trade unions and the party membership spurned a call for the conference to hold a debate and a vote on Wednesday about whether Britain should renew Trident.
In a severe embarrassment to Corbyn, who won the support of the main trade unions in the leadership contest, the call for a debate on Trident was supported by just 0.16% of the trade union vote. The support among constituency Labour parties was little higher at 7.1%.
Shadow cabinet members, who had earlier welcomed a signal by Corbyn that he would allow a free vote on Trident, were scathing about the new leader’s conference debut. “Chaos and confusion rule the day,” said one frontbencher.
Another senior figure said: “Delegates did not feel they wanted the party to have to debate such a divisive issue. Common sense has prevailed.”
John Woodcock, the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, where replacement Trident submarines would be built, welcomed the result. Woodcock, who backed Liz Kendall in the leadership contest, said: “It is good that Labour members have rejected the CND left’s plan to prioritise returning the party to the days of 1980s unilateral nuclear disarmament. This is a welcome sign that many rank-and-file Labour supporters want to keep us focused on the immediate concerns of the public rather than re-running old battles that risk splitting Labour apart.”
The decision to spurn a debate on Trident, which came hours after Corbyn had told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show he would like the issue to be debated, shows that the new leader’s room for manoeuvre will be severely limited. His deputy chief of staff, Anneliese Midgley, had lobbied members of the conference arrangements committee (CAC) to include the motion under the headline “Britain’s defence capability” on their priorities ballot for contemporary motions that are debated at conference.
Tom Watson, the deputy leader, who supports the renewal of Trident, is understood to have urged caution in recent days on such a divisive issue. Watson made clear where his priorities lie when he made a rallying cry at a lunchtime fringe meeting for Labour to campaign more passionately and effectively against the government on austerity.
The Corbyn camp said that the failure to allow a debate on Trident was not a setback and in fact marked a victory for one of his themes during the Labour leadership contest – that party members and trade union activists should decide what issues are debated at conference. “The media have created the narrative that Jeremy was pushing for this,” one source said. “Jeremy’s strategy is to allow open debate and delegates have decided to debate important issues like the refugee crisis and housing.”
The Labour leader, who is likely to have been aware by Sunday morning that the CLPs and main trade unions would not support a debate on Trident, had tried to give himself some room for manoeuvre earlier in the day when he joked that he could not dictate the agenda in Brighton. He told the Andrew Marr Show: “Sadly, the Labour leader has no dictatorship over the conference arrangements committee or anything else. I think probably there are going to be a series of alternatives put there and we will see what happens.”
But on Friday, Corbyn said he hoped Trident would be debated at conference as he indicated that he would be prepared to work with the SNP to try to block the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. “Conference ought to be the place where there is open discussion – that is the whole function of it,” he told Sky News.
In his appearance on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, Corbyn indicated that he hoped to have a debate on Trident. He said: “I hope to persuade them that a nuclear-free world is a good thing, that fulfilling our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and promoting a nuclear weapons convention is a good thing. They are all signed up to multilateral disarmament, by the way.”
Members of the shadow cabinet were given the strong impression that Corbyn wanted the Trident debate to be held after lobbying by his office. Pete Wilsman, a member of the pro-Corbyn Campaign for Labour Democracy, succeeded in persuading Labour’s national executive committee to agree to a rule change designed to increase the chances that the Trident motion would be debated.
The rejection of a debate and vote on Trident means that Labour is still officially committed to renewing the deterrent. This means that, in the absence of a move to change the policy at Labour’s national policy forum, shadow cabinet members who favour its renewal, led by Watson and the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, will say they have the right to vote in favour of Trident.
This suggests Trident will be renewed when MPs are asked to vote on the “maingate” decision next summer, possibly in June. The combination of centre-ground Labour figures such as Watson and Benn and the vast bulk of Conservative MPs would provide enough votes to defeat Corbyn if he joins forces with the SNP’s 56 MPs to oppose Trident.
Hilary Benn will announce on Monday that Corbyn, who said during the leadership contest that he could not envisage the circumstances in which he would support British forces taking part in military action, is prepared to sanction armed forces to protect safe havens in Syria.
The shadow foreign secretary will tell the conference that the UK should press for a UN security council resolution under chapter VII of the UN charter, which allows for military force to “maintain or restore international peace and security”, to create and protect safe havens.
However, Labour sources said the party is unlikely to agree that Britain should be involved in protecting the safe havens and it will not agree to extending British involvement in air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq to Syria. The call for a UN resolution also ensures that Russia would have a veto.
Benn will also call for suspected war criminals in Syria to be referred to the international criminal court. This is designed to put pressure on Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad.
David Cameron indicated in New York that Assad should face international criminal prosecution, despite having dropped his opposition to the dictator staying in power temporarily as part of a transitional government.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Monday 28th September 2015 07.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010