The leadership has avoided commitment to a second referendumby Colin Talbot / September 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
A five-hour “compositing” meeting at Labour’s annual conference has produced a supposed “compromise” resolution to go to conference for voting. It has been welcomed by some on the Remain side as “movement” and by others as a betrayal of the members’ desire for a second referendum. It can’t be both hot fudge and a sugar-coated Brexit pill—so which is it, and how did it happen?
Having attended many Labour and trade union conferences I’m all too familiar with the noble art of “compositing.” The idea is simple. Far too many motions come to conferences to be debated, but many are on similar topics and similar in content. Compositing, alongside or as part of some sort of “conference arrangements committee,” decides on how to first group issues into debates—e.g. Brexit, housing, austerity, or whatever—and then to try and aggregate all the motions into a single one for debate.
If there are serious differences then quite often there will be a main composite motion and one or two composite amendments reflecting alternative views—so there can be a clear debate and vote.
Compositing is inevitable in any party that holds a range of opinions—the famous “broad church.” The only way to aggregate opinion is through something like this process. So there is nothing wrong with it in principle. But compositing, and conference arrangements, also has its dark arts. Anyone with experience knows that control of conference arrangements and compositing committees is key to power in a party conference. Whoever is running the party certainly knows it.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is no different. Last year we saw this through Labour’s conference arrangers managing to effectively keep the Brexit debate off the floor of conference altogether. This year the debate couldn’t be kept off the agenda, so it was time for different tactics.
Which brings us to THAT Brexit motion.
The first thing that strikes you about the motion is the personalisation of the issue of Brexit around Jeremy Corbyn. Its opening sentence is “conference welcomes Jeremy Corbyn’s determined efforts to hold the Tories to account for their disastrous negotiations.” (Many delegates are also wearing “Love Corbyn Hate Brexit” t-shirts, apparently). To say Corbyn has been making “determined efforts” is, to put it mildly, a bit of a stretch. He has rarely mentioned Brexit at PMQs, even when the Tories have been in utter disarray about it. But let’s leave that aside for the moment. Keir Starmer has done most of the heavy lifting.
The motion states that “conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the single market.” That implies that Labour wants to stay in both the customs union and the single market, which is clearly a shift in position (before it was only the customs union). But the only way to do that is through joining something like the European Economic Area—something the motion avoids saying.
The crucial part of the motion for most, however, will be this: “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
This looks like a move towards the “peoples vote” position, but in reality it is nothing of the sort. Firstly, it leaves it open to the Corbyn leadership to decide when “we cannot get a general election” comes into operation. Secondly, it does not actually commit Labour to campaign for a new referendum even if a general election is not forthcoming—just to have it “on the table,” which is where it might well stay. Thirdly, it doesn’t actually commit Labour to having an “exit from Brexit” option in any such referendum. John McDonnell and others have made it clear that should not be an option.
The only time I attended the TUC Conference as a delegate (from the old Post Office Engineers Union) there was an amazing composite motion debate on energy. The motion was moved by an Engineering Union with a strong speech in favour of nuclear power. It was seconded by none other than Arthur Scargill of the Miners, with strong anti-nuclear power speech.
It’s quite possible we’ll see something similar in Liverpool, with the GMB, which will be moving the motion, perhaps arguing for a new referendum but only on the terms of Brexit. Exeter CLP, which will be seconding, may well be arguing for a referendum to include the option to reverse Brexit.
Meanwhile, just like at the TUC conference I attended all those years ago in Blackpool, the top table will gaze benignly on the “debate,” knowing full well it will leave them completely free to do what they want.