Facing rift within party, UK’s Labour drops plan to debate unilateral nuclear disarmament

Britain’s Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, applauds during the party’s annual conference in Brighton, southern England, Sunday Sept. 27, 2015. For six decades, British governments have considered unilateral nuclear disarmament unthinkable — but the once-unthinkable is the Labour Party’s new normal. Britain’s main opposition party has just elected a leader from the radical left, and this week party members may commit a future Labour government to scrapping Britain’s Trident nuclear arms program. (Gareth Fuller/PA Via AP) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE

JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press | 

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Labour Party has decided to leave the country’s nuclear weapons alone.

The opposition party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, opposes atomic weapons, and had said the issue would be debated at the party’s annual conference, which opened Sunday.

But after Labour-supporting trade unions said they would vote to keep nuclear weapons and protect thousands of defense jobs, delegates dropped the issue from the conference agenda.

It’s a setback for left-winger Corbyn, who wants the party to consider policies long considered off the political agenda, from nationalizing industry to diverging on foreign policy from the U.S.

He said earlier Sunday that Britain should get rid of its “weapon of mass destruction” and scrap the Trident nuclear program.

Britain has been a nuclear power since the 1950s, and both Labour and Conservative governments have consistently supported atomic weapons. Since the 1990s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent has consisted of four Royal Navy submarines armed with Trident missiles.

News that Trident would be debated at the conference for the first time in many years had been hailed as a victory by anti-nuclear activists — but caused despair for Labour centrists, who fear the party faces electoral oblivion under Corbyn.

John McTernan, a former aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair, argued that nuclear weapons are “deeply and broadly supported” by British voters.

“So to make the centerpiece of your first conference a turn towards unilateralism is a resounding signal to the public that you don’t want to be a party of government,” he said.

A vote to get rid of Trident would also have opened a rift between Corbyn and many Labour lawmakers, who support retaining nuclear weapons. Parliament is due to decide next year how to replace the aging Trident system.

The divide between pro- and anti-nuclear forces has long been a fault-line in the Labour Party. It was Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s Labour government that developed atomic weapons in the years following World War II, making Britain the world’s third nuclear-armed state after the United States and the Soviet Union.

Labour briefly adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament under leader Michael Foot, whose election-losing 1983 party manifesto was described by one Labour lawmaker as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Labour’s 1980s defeats led Blair and other young leaders to create “New Labour,” repositioning the party as patriotic, pro-business and strong on defense.

“Defense and security has been an issue that the Labour Party has been very, very keen to keep mainstream, certainly since the 1980s,” said Richard Whitman, an associate fellow at international affairs think-tank Chatham House.

New Labour won three consecutive elections from 1997, but the party lost power in 2010 and was trounced by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in a May election that focused largely on perceptions of economic competence.

Party members reacted by turning away from Blairism, derided by those on the left as “Tory-lite” policies. This month Labour elected Corbyn, a 66-year-old backbench lawmaker who promises to combine old-school socialism with a new style of politics. He is a sharp critic of Blair-era pro-business economics and international military engagements — notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and advocates more grassroots democracy in the party

On Sunday, however, pragmatism triumphed.

Trade unions, whose votes carry half the weight at Labour conferences, announced that they would try to defeat any anti-Trident motion in order to protect jobs.

“The most important thing for us is jobs and the defense of communities,” said Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union.

A little later, Labour delegates voted not to debate Trident during the four-day conference in Brighton, southern England.

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