Trident vote: are unions reverting to their traditional role, backing the Labour Right?

September 28, 2015 at 9:10 pm (class, Europe, internationalism, Jim D, labour party, reformism, unions, Unite the union) ()

Above: Trident nuclear submarine patrolling (Getty Images)

Jeremy Corbyn has suffered his first defeat as Labour leader: and it’s been Unite and the GMB who’ve brought it about.

The decision by delegates at the Party conference not to have a debate on Trident came about because Unite and the GMB, with tens of thousands of their members’ jobs dependent upon the renewal of the nuclear weapons system, made it clear that they’d vote against any anti- Trident resolution.

Today’s Morning Star front page headline declared ‘Dismay As Trident Vote Is Blocked’ while the story beneath quoted CND’s Kate Hudson, at some length, decrying the decision as “bitterly disappointing, not just for the Labour delegates and members who wanted to see that debate take place, but for many, many others round the country who wanted to see Labour stand up unequivocally against the government’s determination to rearm Britain with nuclear weapons … Failure of Labour to change its policy means that in spring next year , when the government seeks Parliament’s approval for Trident’s replacement, Labour policy will be on the wrong side … Labour will give the Tory government a blank cheque for nuclear rearmament.”

Tucked away at the end of the Star‘s article is a brief reference to the role of Unite, the paper’s main funder: ‘Setting out his opposition to unilateralism, Unite leader Len McCluskey said: “I understand the moral case and the huge cost of replacing Trident, especially in this era of austerity, but the important thing for us is jobs and the defence of communities.”

The embarrassment of the Morning Star aside, the significance of the votes of Unite and the other major unions on this issue, is that they seem to be reverting to their traditional role as bastions of right wing pragmatism, against the leftist idealism of much of the Party’s rank and file (although, having said that, only 7.1% of constituency delegates voted for a debate on Trident). It also points to the failure of the anti-Trident left to deal effectively with the questions of jobs: Unite and the GMB in reality regard Trident as a massive job creation scheme and so far (beyond vague references to the Lucas Alternative Plan of the 1970’s) the left has failed to come up with a convincing answer.

Meanwhile the GMB’s recently-knighted buffoon of a general secretary, ‘Sir’ Paul Kenny has lined up with Labour’s Europhobes (some of the most right wing people in the Party) in urging the Party to “keep its options open” on EU membership and, in fact, campaign for withdrawal if Cameron’s renegotiation results in any weakening of British workers’ rights – quite how leaving the EU will prevent the Tories attacking workers’ rights in Britain is not explained by Kenny or his europhobic friends. In fact, Corbyn’s recent clarification on Europe (stating that he “cannot envisage” Labour campaigning for withdrawal and that the Party will re-instate any workers’ rights bargained away by Cameron) is plainly the only rational left-wing position.

For all his fake-left posturing, Kenny’s position on Europe (like his position on Trident) is, objectively, an attack on Corbyn … from the right.

It’s time for Corbyn’s supporters to start organising seriously in the unions.


  1. dagmar said,

    ” Labour will give the Tory government a blank cheque for nuclear disarmament.”

    Is that what she wrote? “nuclear rearmament”, surely?

    A good speech by Cde. Pete Radcliff, though…

    • Jim Denham said,

      My mistake: it was, of course, “nuclear rearmament”

      Thanks for the nudge …

      …correcting right now.

  2. Steven Johnston said,

    But surely, if you accept the line of the Star, nuclear weapons are “socialist”! If not, why does China have so many of them? by their logic if Britain did become a socialist state, if would need nuclear weapons to protect itself from the imperialist powers. Would it not be better to have the capitalist class pay for them now? Saving money, under socialism, for hospitals and schools?

  3. Glasgow Working Class said,

    The defense of the nation is more important than the unions. The unions only exist because we are a free nation and not run by another defunct nation which the Morning Star idolised in days gone by.

    • Political tourist said,

      Bairns not Bombs.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        Agree but sounds trite and shallow.

      • Glasgow Working Class said,

        Pt, that sounds like a priest!

  4. John R said,

    If the vote had come to conference, Trident would have been backed, imo.

    The Unions, who back Corbyn over his view on austerity, would have been seen to undermine him on this. Then, Tom Watson and chums could say, “The Shadow Cabinet, the PLP and now Conference have all voted by a majority to renew Trident. Let us all have Party Unity around this policy.”

    So, the non-vote, I’d say, has helped Corbyn.

    • Steven Johnston said,

      I don’t understand this, how can you be both anti-austerity and against spending the £100 billion on Trident. Either you spend it on Trident or you spend it elsewhere, but from an economic point of view there is no difference as the money gets spent.

      • Glasgow Working Class said,

        Steven, all this anti austerity is just soundbites from the Labour, Tories, Liberals and Scot Nat sis and more so the Scot Nat sis as they have powers to tax and end the austerity. They are a worse version of the Tories. At least the Tories tell you they are going to screw you.

  5. dagmar said,

    I’d never heard/seen any of these union leaders speak before and I was astounded at how bad they were. Dave Prentis was a poor speaker (couldn’t imagine him being very good on a picket line), Sir Kenny came across very badly, the bloke from Aslef didn’t seem to realise you don’t need to shout at people when you have microphones (and this might come across negatively), and when it comes to McCluskey: the stuff on the trade union bill, ‘red triangle armbands’ and Dachau concentration camp was not only embarrassing but an insult to genuine anti-fascists. It belittled those who suffered under actual nazism. Only the TSSA leader came across as being vaguely competent, fairly good at speaking and actually believing what he was reading (or speaking, even, heaven forbid, off the cuff).

    The PLP are rubbish, but, my god, those TU leaders are a shower of shite on every level.

    On other news: didn’t trident come 9th altogether in the vote on contemporary motions (8 were/are debated in total, right?, up from the originally. pre-Corbyn, planned 4) – so it was fairly close. In all though, I think it is good for the left that there was no vote, as the pro-Trident line may well have won. The left has time now to win over delegates by next conference, or however policy will be decided in the future.

    Does the block vote play a role any more? Can the union “barons” overrule CLP delegates on policy votes?

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Thanks to a change in NEC rules we got 4 TU and 4 CLP sponsored contemporary motions debated this year.

      Look at CAC report 2 (which may be difficult if you are not a party member with membersnet access) and you will see that a number of motions had tiny TU votes in the priority ballot as in effect those votes were not going to be counted at all.

      (That the obverse did not apply and relatively speaking a lot more CLP votes were wasted on motions where they were not going to be counted just shows you how poorly informed CLP delegates are in comparison to TU ones).

      The Trident CLP motion got 36,322 CLP votes and failed because it was only the fifth most popular motion with CLPs (the fourth which did qualify was mental health with 40,052 CLP votes).

      And had it got those 5,000 extra votes (which meant in effect just a handful of CLP delegates switching their votes) it would almost certainly have been defeated in a card vote anyway.

      So defeat on priorities ballot was actually the best result for anyone genuinely wanting to change party policy, as we clearly need another year to build support in both CLPs and unions to have any chance of winning a real conference debate.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Re your last question the CLP and TU votes are now equalised in effect so that a CLP vote weighs far more than a TU vote

      To give the example of card vote 1 (the futile ritual attempt by the left to refer back the report of the all-powerful Conference Arrangements Committee – which for the first time in my memory was actually forced to a card vote this time):

      CLP votes FOR (accepting CAC report) = 49,874 (56.95%)
      CLP votes AGAINST (remitting CAC report = 37,705 (43.05%)

      Affiliate votes FOR = 1,187,224 (56.23%)
      Affiliate votes AGAINST = 924,194 (43.77%)

      Under the old rules we remember from the 80s and 90s you’d just have added together the CLP and TU votes so the CLP vote was invariably swamped.

      Now CLP and TU votes are reweighted so that 50% of the total votes cast go to each.

      So final result of card vote 1 was:

      CLP FOR = 28.47%
      CLP AGAINST = 21.53%

      Affiliate FOR = 28.11%
      Affiliate AGAINST = 21.89%

      Total FOR = 56.59%
      Total AGAINST = 43.41%

      (This may look complicated but all that actually happens is the scrutineer halves each of the original percentages and then adds the 4 results together to make 100%).

      So in practise a motion supported by 51.0% of CLP votes would beat one opposed by 50.9% of TU votes and the two elements are equally powerful.

      The issue is that nobody has any idea how 635 CLP delegations are going to vote in any debate whereas every TU delegation agrees its votes in advance and can broad- (or rather narrow) -cast that information around conference just as seems to have happened here.

      And (without looking up the numbers) Unite even under the new(-ish) weighting rules still has more actual effective votes at conference than 100 or more CLP delegates put together – and Len gets to cast them all as one block vote.

      So yes, unless they are divided amongst themselves the big affiliated TU leaders can still ‘overrule’ CLP delegates – unless the latter are far more organised and united around an issue than they are ever likely to be.

      • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Interestingly the 50% rule also protects the union block vote against the consequences of the Tory TU bill.

        If opt-in massively reduces the number of paper votes a union can affiliate to Labour with, they still as a section get 50% – so 50,000 Unite votes at Conference 2018 would still weigh as much as 500,000 (or whatever it is now) Unite votes at Conference 2015.

        So under the old conference regime their dominance would have vanished overnight – but under the new rules however etiolated and powerless unions become in the world outside, they still get to keep those 50% of votes at conference.

        Not that it will then matter as Labour will be bankrupted and have even less hope of winning the next general election – so how we vote on any matter will become utterly meaningless…

  6. Steven Johnston said,

    It’s at times like this you wonder, what would Clement Attlee have done…

    Or maybe not…

  7. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Several points:

    a) Constituency delegates were due to deadlines elected in June and July before the real left-wing surge in membership (if that is what it really was) and thus probably far more right wing than the mass.

    b) Even amongst the leadership electorate 50% of full members voted for pro-Trident candidates (and 100% did so in the deputy contest where not a single candidate was anti-Trident).

    c) The ballot at conference was not on ‘Trident’ but the standard list of anodyne policy headings – thus if you were not aware that ‘Britain’s Defence Capability’ on that priorities ballot meant Trident you could hardly be blamed for preferring mental health or whatever instead.

    d) And I very much doubt that the average delegate to conference is as aware of how conference works as we political anoraks – there may have been pushing 1,000 constituency delegates but I doubt there were more than a couple of dozen present at the key CLPD pre-conference meeting on Saturday for example.

    And this last point is key – the organised left in the Labour Party is by no means as numerous, cohesive and effective as the right love to pretend.

    The great majority of CLPs, mine included, do not for instance have any organised local left grouping at all – last time I looked there were for instance only a handful of local LRC groups anywhere in the country.

    For hard evidence of that look at the vital CAC elections where the celebrity status of the two right wing candidates Gloria de Piero and Michael Cashman got them three times the vote of the two CLPD- and LRC-endorsed candidates.

    And the 35,000 – in a potential electorate of nearly 300,000 full CLP members then eligible to vote – who supported Jon Lansman and Katy Clark for CAC is the real gauge of how strong the organised and informed Left is in the party.

    This conference was never going to be a triumph for the left and indeed other than the (disgraceful) Unite motion on Syria and that the ancient ritual of the call to refer back the CAC report was actually brought to a card vote it is difficult to see any evidence of left advance in the pages of the daily conference report.

    The key conference will be next year (or the special conference if that rumour becomes reality) when we will see if all those people who joined to vote for Jeremy were just clicktivists – of if any have actually turned up to CLP meetings and organised themselves enough to get delegated.

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