At the Labour Party Conference there was no debate on Trident even though non-renewal of the nuclear deterrent was central to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign.
Why the omission? The unions didn’t want to talk about it. Topics for debate are decided ‘democratically’ and since the unions wield 50% of the votes their views tend to prevail. They derailed any idea of having a sensible discussion.
Len McCluskey, the head of Unite, which has thousands of members in the defence industry, is reported saying that his main focus would be the protection of jobs, so Mr Corbyn had to back down. “I understand the moral case and the huge cost of replacing Trident, especially in this era of austerity,” said McCluskey, “but the most important thing for us is jobs and the defence of communities. We will vote against any anti-Trident motion. I don’t think this will be a problem for Jeremy Corbyn. He is a great democrat and we are already seeing a refreshing change to the Labour conference, with open debates.”
But the rank and file membership may not see it like that. Unite might as well protect the arms dealers too who help make the world go round for the death-dealing arms industry. Faced with McCluskey’s attitude I already regret signing a petition opposing the Tories’ proposed Trade Union Bill. If union leaders are determined to close down the anti-Trident campaign, why should I or anyone else leap to their defence? And why should the British public cough up £100 billion to keep people in work on weapons of mass destruction? The writing has been on the wall for long enough and, besides, we’re signed up to nuclear non-proliferation.
In his rant against the Trade Union Bill McCluskey told conference delegates that the requirement for striking workers to wear armbands on the picket line was like the Nazis’ treatment of trade unionists in concentration camps. “I will be on the picket line when Unite members are on strike and I will not be wearing an armband with a red triangle like the trade union prisoners,” he said. “Conference, remember, that’s what the Nazis did – trade unionists in the concentration camps of Dachau – made to wear armbands with red triangles. We won’t be doing that.”
There are valid complaints about the Bill but this isn’t one of them. What the Bill actually says is that “the picket supervisor must wear a badge, armband or other item that readily identifies the picket supervisor as such”. A fuss about nothing, which nonetheless received a standing ovation from the leadership and the hall.
Austerity “not an economic necessity”
On the economy Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told Conference he was “fearful” about the present situation. He said the Tories’ economic recovery was based on rising house prices, growing consumer credit, and inadequate reform of the financial sector, and that the economy was overwhelmingly reliant on insecure jobs in the service sector. “Our balance of payments deficit is at the highest levels it’s been since modern records began. I worry that the same pre-crash warning signs are reappearing….
“The Conservatives always argue that no matter what the social cost of their austerity policies, they are necessary to rescue our economy. Let’s be clear. Austerity is not an economic necessity, it’s a political choice.”
He pledged that every policy Labour proposes and every economic instrument they use will be “rigorously tested to its extreme” before adopted in government, and the Office of Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England would test and re-test Labour’s plans to ensure they are workable and affordable.
McDonnell also slammed the Tories over nationalisation. “I found the Conservatives’ rant against Jeremy’s proposal to bring rail back into public ownership ironic when George Osborne was touring China selling off to the Chinese State Bank any British asset he could lay his hands on. It seems the state nationalising our assets is OK with the Tories as long as it’s the Chinese state or in the case of our railways the Dutch or French.”
Jeremy Corbyn, in his new leader’s speech, declared that Labour will challenge austerity and inequality and protect workers better. Internationally Labour will support the authority of international law and international institutions, not act against them.
He immediately threw down the gauntlet to David Cameron over the Saudis. “Intervene now personally with the Saudi Arabian regime to stop the beheading and crucifixion of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is threatened with the death penalty, for taking part in a demonstration at the age of 17. And while you’re about it, terminate that bid made by our Ministry of Justice to provide services for Saudi Arabia – which would be required to carry out the sentence that would be put down on Mohammed Ali al-Nimr.
“We have to be very clear about what we stand for in human rights. A refusal to stand up is the kind of thing that really damages Britain’s standing in the world.”
He also lambasted the Tories’ idea of economic recovery saying there’s an investment crisis. Britain’s level of investment was at the bottom of the international league, just below Madagascar and just above El Salvador. The UK’s balance of payment deficit was £100 billion last year, saddling the economy and every one of us with unsustainable debt for the future. Shocks in world markets this summer had shown up the fragile state of the world economy and how ill-prepared the Tories had left us to face another crisis. The feeble economic recovery wasn’t underpinned by growing exports and a stronger manufacturing sector but house price inflation, asset inflation, more private debt. He called it unbalanced, unsustainable and dangerous…. “an economy that works for the few, not for the many. Manufacturing is still in decline.”
Referring to John McDonnell’s speech the previous day, he said: “The economy of the future depends on the investment we make today in infrastructure, skills, and schools.” To help achieve this he wants a National Investment Bank and a Green New Deal investing in renewable energy and energy conservation to tackle the threat of climate change.
On Trident he said: “I don’t believe £100 billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons taking up a quarter of our defence budget is the right way forward. I believe Britain should honour our obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and lead in making progress on international nuclear disarmament. But we must make sure all the jobs and skills of everyone in every aspect of the defence industry are fully protected and fully utilised so that we gain from this, we don’t lose from this.”
In an interview after the conference he said he wouldn’t press the nuclear button anyway, a remark which has caused some consternation. But who would, other than the worst of the worst psychopaths?
On foreign policy he insisted we learn the lessons of the recent past. “It didn’t help our national security that, at the same time I was protesting outside the Iraqi Embassy about Saddam Hussein’s brutality, Tory ministers were secretly conniving with illegal arms sales to his regime. It didn’t help our national security when we went to war with Iraq in defiance of the United Nations and on a false prospectus. It didn’t help our national security to endure the loss of hundreds of brave British soldiers in that war while making no proper preparation for what to do after the fall of the regime.
“Nor does it help our national security to give such fawning and uncritical support to regimes like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – who abuse their own citizens and repress democratic rights.”
Corbyn was silent on Europe and the upcoming EU in/out referendum, no doubt fearing a row. Earlier, he had written in The Independent: “The EU is too beholden to corporate interests, and the behind-closed-doors negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) confirm this. This poses a huge threat to our environmental standards, consumer protections and workers’ rights.
“What’s more, there is clearly a democratic deficit when even elected members of Parliament don’t have access to papers being discussed, and when the proposals include a supra-national and unaccountable judicial system to arbitrate on trade policy. And I’m also concerned by the direction and advance of EU foreign policy development with all new member states required to join NATO, which suggests both a militaristic turn in Europe and the block that puts on an independent foreign policy….
“There is a lot wrong with the European Union, a lot of change needed, but I want to hear from the British people about what sort of Europe they want.”
He also avoided the thorny issue of immigration.
‘Grown-up politics’? Or cop-out?
Corbyn’s new-style Labour risks becoming a gift to satirists, what with his appointment of such oddballs as the convicted arsonist Lord Watson to his frontbench team along with Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s old flatmate and ‘fixer’, and supporter of the war on Iraq. That Corbyn cannot gather enough genuine socialists into his team shows what a comprehensive brainwashing job Blair and his gruesome crew managed to do. Corbyn says repeatedly he wants to build a “kinder politics”. Not too kind though, one hopes. Lack of coherence and too much slack could be his undoing. He has certainly inherited a difficult legacy but embracing the ‘enemy within’ and especially allowing the unions to dictate what’s debated is beyond ridiculous. Yes, I know the old adage about keeping your friends close but your enemies closer…. But c’mon.
Eager new party members and supporters may quickly run out of patience. Thousands backed his leadership bid expecting he’d pursue an anti-Trident and EU-sceptic line. A head-on crash is inevitable if cherished principles are to be upheld. But if Corbyn continues to fudge, duck and weave that support may evaporate and those who paid £3 to become Labour supporters may never upgrade to full membership. They, I suspect, want to see blood on the carpet and the pro-Trident, pro-EU Blairite rump given a good kicking, and the unions put in their place. Otherwise, what was the point of the Corbyn revolution? The question is left hanging….
“One firm commitment I make to people who join our Labour Party is that you have a real say, the final say in deciding on the policies of our party,” says Corbyn. “No-one – not me as Leader, not the Shadow Cabinet, not the Parliamentary Labour Party – is going to impose policy or have a veto. The media commentariat don’t get it.
“This is grown up politics,” he continued, “where people put forward different views. We debate issues. We take a decision and we go forward together.”
It’ll be a miracle if it works like that. For all Jeremy Corbyn’s wisdom in the prevailing circumstances, it’s going to sound to people outside the Labour bubble like a leadership cop-out.
Finally a bright note to end on. Labour MPs were told yesterday that they’d probably get a free vote if Cameron sought parliamentary approval to bomb Syria. But today Conference voted to warn that they should agree to bomb only if such action is authorised by the UN, if there’s a comprehensive humanitarian plan for displaced refugees, and if assurances are received that only Isis is targeted. Diplomacy remained the principle means for bringing the civil war to an end.