Has Labour conference voted to lose the next election?

Simon Hannah reports on the good, the bad and Brexit battles at Brighton while fearing for Labour prospects without a remain campaign

If an election is called before Brexit has happened then it is clear that this issue will dominate the political agenda. Under the impact of events Labour has shifted its position considerably. The 2017 manifesto pledged simply to carry out the result of the referendum; now Labour is proposing a new referendum with remain as an option. For people still battling to stop the far right Brexit project, this is now the most realistic path to ending this whole nightmare.

This was the context in which 81 CLPs put pro-remain motions to this year’s conference. Going into the next election we were determined to ensure Labour had a commitment to campaign for remain in its manifesto. In the composite there was a minority of CLPs who argued differently and we agreed to split the composite between one that was ‘remain’ while the other merely applauded the current leadership’s efforts and pledged to support whatever strategy they developed. Against our majority remain motion was an NEC statement, introduced at conference itself, that argued for Labour to have a neutral position on Brexit in a General Election and instead pledge for a special conference of members, held after a general election, where members will decide between backing a leave deal negotiated by a Labour government versus remain.

The debate was revealing of the current political direction and health of the party. Our delegates, many of them from Another Europe is Possible, Labour for a Socialist Europe, Labour Remain and others, put forward internationalist arguments, critical of the EU but also critical of Brexit. We argued that the route to a transformative Labour government was through backing remain.

This was based on all the polling that has been done; that the majority of Labour members and voters, the majority of BAME people, young people and trade unionists, Scottish Labour, Welsh Labour and the Labour Party Irish Society all support remain. We are a remain party – we campaigned for remain in 2016 and that was the right thing to do. And our current polling troubles are happening because we are not giving our electoral base what they expect – to campaign for remain.

In essence leavers already think we are a remain party and remainers are totally confused about our position. This is the core of our massive defeat at the EU elections.

Inevitably the debate on conference floor became one of who was most loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. We had made clear that we were on the left of the party and believed that remain was the best route to government. But conference delegates were convinced by passionate, tub thumping but largely contentless speeches from delegates who declared their love for Corbyn and how infallible his strategy was. As one delegate (from a strongly remain CLP and remain area of London) told us squarely, “trust your leader”. The speeches were full of platitudes and slogans: “We are for the 99% not the 48%!” and the ubiquitous “for the many not the few!” Delegates loved it. We were defeated in the vote to chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!”

There is always something of a morale-boosting rally about a party conference. The hall is packed with activists and political hacks and the constant cheers and standing ovations throughout conference added a lot of energy to the room. However, it was a disturbing display of ‘loyalty’ from CLP delegates, many of whom backed the NEC statement by breaking their mandate from their CLPs to vote against adopting a remain position.

It is with a sinking feeling that we suspect that in voting for the NEC statement – which effectively kicks the can down the road to after the election to make a decision – Labour conference just voted to lose the next election.

The current strategy is to try and move the conversation on from Brexit towards class-based issues, austerity, food banks, the NHS, wages, and so on. The hope is that Labour can appeal to both leave and remain voters – the 99%. But the problem is that the conversation cannot move on until Brexit is resolved, and even then if we leave it will be years of negotiations with the EU over trading and regulatory frameworks. Going into an election with no position either way pleases literally no one.

You can wish that solid social democratic issues like housing and the NHS were top of the agenda but wishing won’t make it so.

It was quite tragic seeing so much enthusiasm, and conference passing such good motions on issues like the Green New Deal, and just feel deep down that the failure of the movement to grasp the Brexit nettle meant that the possibility of forming a government and implementing these as policies felt like it was slipping further away.

However the next day there was good news from conference: it passed a very principled motion on migrants’ rights, calling for the abolition of all detention centres, votes for migrants, and to defend and extend free movement. The incredible hard work being done by Another Europe is Possible and Labour Campaign for Free Movement activists paid off. The motion was passed almost unanimously to loud cheers from the conference floor and jubilant singing of the Internationale as delegates celebrated outside.

Back to reality

But away from the warm embrace of the party faithful at conference, Britain is on the verge of a catastrophe. As comrades trooped back to their respective constituencies, Boris Johnson returned to Westminster after the Supreme Court ruled he had acted illegally in proroguing parliament. Many expected a recalcitrant or apologetic Prime Minister, but this is a new age of right wing populists and demagogues – the age of Trump. Johnson was combative, hurling invective at MPs and goading them into challenging him. His Attorney General lambasted the parliament as “a disgrace”. When opposition MPs called out Johnson for his rhetoric in light of the assassination of Jo Cox by a fascist in 2016, he laughed at them, calling the concern over the constant rape and death threats ‘humbug’.

His demagogy appeals to his growing base, a call to muster reactionary forces across the country. It is a call to arms. A day later someone tried to break into Jess Phillips’ office. The next day a serving British soldier tweeted Angela Rayner MP: “fuck off you stupid bitch [you’ll] perish when civil war comes and it’s coming.” Brexit Britain looks set to be nasty, brutish… though hopefully short.

Simon Hannah was a delegate from Tooting CLP and moved the pro-remain composite motion 13.

Simon Hannah

Simon Hannah is author of A Party With Socialists In It: A History of the Labour Left.