John McDonnell, Labour’s unilateralist Shadow Chancellor, has told the Guardian that the Shadow Cabinet “should be bound” by the decision on Trident reached by party activists during a debate at the party conference.
On the surface, that makes sense: Jeremy Corbyn is a unilateralist and he’s been elected leader with a thumping mandate from the party grassroots.
If said grassroots were to reiterate their commitment to disarming Britain with a conference resolution, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that it become party policy.
Yet such a suggestion risks undoing the very careful balancing act that Corbyn and the Parliamentary Labour Party have struck in order to allow Labour to field a Shadow Cabinet.
One of the hallmarks of the opening days of the Corbyn era – aside from the general chaos and endless string of terrible headlines – has been the PLP taking their new leader to one side and gently explaining that on such totemic areas as NATO, Europe and Trident, his views carry little more weight with Labour MPs now than when he was a backbencher.
To me, this has posed a question which may come to define Corbyn’s period as leader: is he really coming to terms with the hopelessness of his position, and the apparent invincibility of the PLP as a bastion of reaction inside the party?
Or is he taking inspiration from those red titans, Stalin and Mao, and embarking on a prolonged tactical retreat whilst he prepares to gain the upper hand on his opponents?
This conference will probably start to reveal the answer to that question. If there is to be a tussle for control of the party between the establishment and the membership, the party conference is as plausible a venue as any.
As we have argued on this site previously, there seems little benefit to Corbyn in compromising his views – he risks ending up simply as a less electable Ed Miliband with far heavier baggage.
From the point of view of the hard left, the rational position seems to be to try to exploit Corbyn’s ascendancy to cement their hold on the party, both by passing policy power to the membership and using the redrawing of constituency boundaries (and the necessary wholesale reselection of the PLP) to exert pressure on Labour MPs.
But Corbyn might not be the man to do that for them. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the MP for Islington North is no natural leader.
Whether its outsourcing his PMQs to provide a degree of detachment, or conceding substantial points of policy to assemble a Shadow Cabinet, or his apparent aversion to the media, Corbyn often gives the impression of trying to will himself back to the backbenches.
It seems almost certain that if they had known they had a chance of actually winning, Labour’s far-left MPs would have run a different candidate. It remains to be seen whether the new leader’s ideological court – outlined here by the Daily Telegraph – can do the job with the man they’ve got.