Labour Remainers strung along
London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg looks at what has and has not been achieved at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. His view: not a victory, but not a defeat either. However, time marches on and is against us. A companion blog will look at the prospects for a general election.
So, it was all for naught. The valiant efforts of Labour Remainers seeking to obtain a Labour commitment to Remain and a People’s Vote have not succeeded. The pro-Brexit Labour leadership have maintained their position allowing them to back Brexit while stringing Labour Remainers along with warm words.
A look back to 2016
The 2016 Conference decided: “Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or a referendum.”
That was pretty feeble. It required an unacceptable deal to trigger any resistance; and a referendum was only a possibility. However it was clear: if Brexit was unacceptable, then Remain was an option.
The Labour leadership implemented part of the resolution: the meaningful parliamentary vote and the possibility of a general election. They ignored the whole Remain part as well as the referendum option.
2017: Six Tests
In March 2017, Keir Starmer delivered his six tests speech setting out how Labour would judge whether the Government’s Brexit deal was acceptable. Five were woolly, and could be decided either way depending on what conclusion Labour wished to reach: what exactly is “a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU”?
But one was concrete: “Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?”. There are only two amicable trading relationships to have with the EU: Canada/ FTA (via WTO as we negotiate the FTA; and with an Irish backstop); and Norway/ EEA + Customs Union. Only Norway/ EEA + CU delivers the exact same benefits, even then with some ragged edges. Even if the Chequers plan had been accepted by the EU it would have failed this test. (Note that Labour’s own Brexit stance would also fail this test.) Labour expects the Government’s Brexit to fail all six tests.
Keir Starmer’s 2018 conference speech confirmed that Labour would vote against any Brexit that did not meet the six tests. More importantly, he was clear that Labour would also vote against a deal that was vague, a “blind Brexit” (or a “blah blah blah Brexit” in Emily Thornberry’s striking phrase). The significance of that is that Keir Starmer has long used the argument that: all that would be settled in detail would be the withdrawal and transition agreements, while the framework of future relations would be vague and aspirational; so we would not know what Brexit meant until some time after we had left the EU; so it would not be possible to hold a referendum before Brexit.
The 2018 resolution
- “Conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the single market.”; and
- “Should parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes … the best outcome for the country is an immediate general election … . If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
However, it does not say that a referendum is even the second choice. Nor does it say that Remain should be an option in the referendum. Prominent Labour figures have said that any referendum choice should be Brexit or Brexit. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said that Remain should not be on the ballot paper, a view reiterated by Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, contradicting Keir Starmer’s conference speech. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in effect said that the referendum choice would not include a Remain option, seeming to prefer a yes/no choice on Theresa May’s deal with no concrete alternative; rejection would lead to Labour negotiating a different Brexit deal; although he may have retreated later. Keir Starmer “not ruling out” the possibility that Remain would be on the ballot paper is hardly reassuring. His conference speech as printed (and cleared in advance with the Leader’s office) did not even repeat that, although he did repeat it in his actual speech – to great applause.
The story of how the motion was agreed is dispiriting – bringing to mind the quote usually [mis-]attributed to Bismarck about how one should not watch laws or sausages being made.
The motion does not say what Labour’s policy should be in any general election campaign. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said just before the Conference that Labour would fight a general election on a Better Brexit platform. And that is clearly the line in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech – see below.
Even “full participation in the single market” is open to interpretation. It could mean Remain, EEA membership, some variant of the Swiss arrangements or the Chequers plan (both unacceptable to the EU), or just trading as any third country does. Remember how Brexiters so disingenuously referred to “access” to the single market during the referendum campaign. I would discount the effectiveness of that policy statement heavily. It does not feature at all in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech.
Jeremy Corbyn’s policy
The Labour Party 2017 election manifesto was for a hard Brexit with no freedom of movement. Nonetheless it promised as much cake as Boris had on the trade benefits of the single market and customs union. In substance it largely matched the Conservatives, but made a generous offer to EU citizens, called for a transition agreement and rejected no-deal. The tone was much more emollient.
Jeremy Corbyns’ great February 2018 speech continued to promise cakeism: a hard Brexit with all the economic benefits of Remain. He went so far as to explain how he would spend the Brexit dividend that even the Government did not think would arrive (on public services and the jobs of the future).
He is hostile to membership of the single market – so much so that in June 2017 he sacked our President, Catherine West MP, from her shadow rôle for voting in favour of the UK staying in the single market.
He has proposed a Customs Union. But it is a fantasy customs union where the UK would be free to sign its own trade deals and would have greater rights over the deals that the EU signed than member states have. So we are not looking at any actually possible customs union with the EU.
In Jeremy Corbyn’s 26 September 2018 conference speech he committed himself to “.. a Brexit that protects jobs, the economy and trade …” “Labour respects the decision of the British people in the referendum.” “Labour’s job is now to win support for a deal that meets the needs of the country… . Our priority is clear – we aim to get the best Brexit deal for jobs and living standards … That can bring people together and meet the concerns of both those who voted leave and those who voted remain.”
“But let me also reach out to the Prime Minister …. If you deliver a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, if you protect jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards – then we will support that sensible deal. … But if you can’t negotiate that deal then you need to make way for a party that can.”
So Jeremy Corbyn stands for Brexit. He has always been a Eurosceptic, apart from the few months of the referendum campaign. Any assessment of what has – or has not – been achieved at Conference 2018 needs to bear that in mind. Any text will be interpreted by Jeremy Corbyn and his inner circle in a way that promotes Brexit.
In the initial excitement of the Conference and the energising presence of Jeremy Corbyn, many Remainers’ reports of the debates on the motion were pretty optimistic.
But in reality no Remain objective has been achieved. The party is not committed to Remain. A referendum is amongst the “all options on the table” but it was before the Conference began. There is no guarantee that Labour would argue for Remain to be an option.
We can safely assume that in the general election that Labour so desperately wants it would campaign for Brexit.
So those Labour Remainers who are still committed to the struggle and to the Labour party need to regroup and continue fighting. And recognise that they are fighting uphill.
There is also a lesson here for the People’s Vote – the disingenuous ambiguity of what we are campaigning for risks us getting a referendum that asks “Brexit or Brexit?”.
But the real question that Remainers who are MPs, members, supporters, voters of the Labour Party need to ask themselves is: what is my priority? Labour or Remain? It should now be more obvious that the chances of the party leadership satisfying both are low.
That said, the meaningful vote in Parliament will lead to a crisis. Anything can happen then. Rationally, a referendum with a choice of Brexit or Remain would be the best way forward. But people do not always behave rationally in a crisis.
Time is passing. There is now no prospect of a referendum before the planned 29 March 2019 Brexit day. The chances of an extension to the Article 50 period to allow for a referendum are good. But yet another way in which Jeremy Corbyn could achieve his Brexit is just to stand there, look at Labour Remainers and say “yes, of course, I wish it were otherwise, but now it is too late”.
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