Jeremy Corbyn, new leader of the opposition Labour Party, will face his first battle with internal opponents next week over his desire to scrap Britain’s nuclear weapons.
Labour’s annual conference in Brighton, on England’s South coast, comes two weeks after the overwhelming election of Corbyn, who has pledged to reverse many of the changes made to the party by Tony Blair, its most successful leader. A series of senior lawmakers have since refused to work for Corbyn over his desertion of the political center ground.
Corbyn’s supporters want a showdown with the ‘Blairite’ wing of the party, and a conference vote on dropping Labour support for replacing Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system has given them their opportunity. If the vote is passed, it will put the party and its leader at odds with the country and many Labour members of Parliament. If it fails, it will put the party at odds with the leader.
“The issue within Labour at the moment is one of competing mandates,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of politics at Bristol University. “Corbyn clearly has a mandate from the wider membership, but then members of Parliament who won seats at the election feel they have mandates too. Trident is going to be the focal point, but it’s not going to be the only issue. There’s questions over austerity, welfare and immigration, too.”
A YouGov Plc poll published Sept. 20 found 62 percent of the public opposed scrapping Britain’s nuclear weapons, with 24 percent supporting. Among people who voted Labour at the May general election, 51 percent opposed nuclear disarmament, with 33 percent in support.
Because Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons, Labour would be unlikely to be able to block the replacement of Trident. However, the Tories see it as an opportunity to show up splits within Labour and replay political battles from the 1980s.
During the 1987 general election campaign, a Conservative poster showed a British soldier with his hands up, captioned “Labour’s Policy On Arms.” After Labour was heavily defeated, it shifted position to support nuclear weapons, a move Corbyn opposed.
Even for votes at Labour conference to be significant is an echo of the 1980s. Under Blair, who became leader in 1994, conference decisions became less and less important, but Corbyn told the New Statesman magazine this week that decisions made at conference should become party policy.
That also means a return to political maneuvering around the votes. The conference agenda itself isn’t agreed on until a vote on Sunday and supporters of nuclear weapons are trying to get other delegates to back a debate on refugees, instead of a debate on defense, to prevent the issue from coming up.
Whether they’ll succeed is unknowable, according to Wickham-Jones. “Labour Party membership is a revolving door,” he said. “People join, get angry, leave, rejoin. It’s impossible to say what delegates to conference will do.”