Labour and Brexit: the party does the splits

Amid fresh conference drama it is hard to decide what's worse: what was done or the way it was done

September 23, 2019
Photo:  Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images

Ever since the referendum result in 2016—indeed the very day after, when Jeremy Corbyn called for the immediate triggering of Article 50—the Labour leadership has been reasonably clear about one thing. The referendum result must be “respected.”

Their initial position was almost indistinguishable from that of the hard-line Europhobes. Although they talked about a “jobs-first Brexit,” their insistence that this included leaving the single market and customs union, and ending freedom of movement for workers, seemed to most observers like a pretty hard departure from the EU.

Very slowly, they have been dragged back from this hard Brexit position to accepting the need for a customs union and close market relationship, to achieve anything like the future outside Europe they claim is possible. And on how this should be done they have also shifted. Initially totally hostile to any idea of a second referendum, they have crept towards not only accepting that there should be one, but that Remain should be on the ballot paper. It’s easy to forget they were once resolutely opposed to both these ideas.

But so far and no further is the message now, confirmed today at Labour Party conference in Brighton. They would, if in government, negotiate a Labour Brexit deal along the sort of lines now agreed—customs union, sort-of-single market, etc—and want to retain the option to leave on this basis.

So while they concede a referendum, they want their deal and Remain as the choice—and give no commitment as to which they’d campaign for, if either. Their “leader” (I use the term loosely) says he will abstain. The party will enter the coming general election committed to neither Leave nor Remain.

The way this new position was rammed through conference on Monday was a pure 1980s re-enactment. As professor Tim Bale put it on Twitter “Corbyn .. [did] .. exactly what his supposedly right-wing, war-mongering, neo-liberal predecessors did: use a combination of good old-fashioned bureaucratic manoeuvring and union muscle to ensure he gets what he wants rather than what Labour members want.”

The vote on the crucial Amendment 13—which would have committed Labour to Remain—was preceded by a debate which was carefully reframed into a vote of confidence in Corbyn. Even then it was only “passed” by refusing a card vote—where the vote of each delegate is counted precisely—and the chair claiming it defeated on a contested show of hands. That will not be the end of the matter.

The rationale for all this is that the Labour vote in the midlands and north would desert the party if it committed to Remain. The irony is they are losing this vote anyway. Labour Leave voters in these areas—always a minority of Labour voters anyway—are deserting to the Brexit Party. But not just over Brexit—they dislike Corbyn anyway for his pacifism, liberal views and perceived extremism. About 5 per cent of Labour’s 2017 40 per cent have gone to the Faragists.

Meanwhile, Labour Remain voters in those areas and all over the country are deserting to the Lib Dems—between one-in-five and one-in-four 2017 Labour voters have already gone. One observer suggested on Twitter that the Lib Dems would have to put this conference down as election expenses. They have a point.

Parties usually expect a small conference boost after their moment in the spotlight every Autumn. What are the odds that all of Labour’s attempts at positive policy-making are overshadowed by this case of the splits, and that the party has a post-conference dip in the polls? With the furore over Tom Waston and now this, you wouldn’t bet against it.