Open revolt and warfare as Labour opts for risky Brexit strategy

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The scenes at today’s party conference were exactly the sort of thing that in his day sent shivers down Tony Blair’s spine.

Open revolt and warfare from the floor; bedraggled conference delegates from far flung CLPs attacking every side. Discontent, discord, disorder – all banished in the New Labour years.

But it was eminently democratic and open. What party conferences should be: close votes, wrangling, tense negotiations conducted in quiet (and occasionally not quiet) whispers. And that it is how it was, until the denouement.

The Labour conference is taking place in Brighton
Image: The Labour conference is taking place in Brighton

All day the tension around the innocuously named “Composite 13” had been building. This was a motion which committed the Labour Party to campaign for a referendum and Remain come what may.

The leadership were against this.

They (probably correctly) wagered that should they do this, it would look ridiculous to go into an election campaign; pledging as they were to negotiate a Labour Brexit deal, whilst committing in advance to campaign for Remain.

What leverage, it was said, could possibly be exerted on Brussels when in advance they knew Britain would reject whatever was offered?

The leadership wanted to back an NEC motion which committed the party to another referendum but that the party wouldn’t decide how Labour would campaign until after the next election, with a special conference to be held to decide closer to the time.

Sky News
Thornberry piles pressure on for Labour to back Remain

As the day wore on, momentum for the composite grew. Various unions, including Unison, lent its support. A source in Jeremy Corbyn’s office told me that the mood was dark and they were resigned to implement whatever conference decided.

But as the debate wore on, the mood shifted. Suddenly delegates spoke more and more of how it was necessary “to back Jeremy” and the leadership.

A delegate whispered to me that, inadvertently, the motion’s proponents (and the media) had made the vote a “confidence motion in all but name” in Mr Corbyn. As such, delegates were suddenly rallying around.

But it was not the substance of the vote which was most material in the end but rather how it was conducted.

Labour delegates have backed an NEC statement calling for the party to postpone its decision on how to campaign in referendum.
‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ sung as NEC motion passes

Initially (arcanely) the votes are conducted by a show of hands.

When the time came for the hands to be strut aloft, they seemed reasonably evenly divided (though I must confess from my vantage point at the back it appeared that those against had won it).

This was where the controversy began.

The chair initially seemed to indicate that the vote was carried, only to receive a whisper from general secretary and Corbyn ally Jenny Formby, indicating she thought it had been lost.

Roars from the floor, demanding a “card vote” were rejected. Instead they were replaced by the triumphalist chanting of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn…”

Jeremy Corbyn
Image: The vote was talked of as a confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn

The mood was black. Some delegates marched out of the room muttering cries of foul play.

The implications are manifold.

Principally, it has caused a great deal of bad blood in the Labour Party. Corbyn may have won the day by making it an issue of his leadership but to do so came at a cost; it has reignited many of the old battles about him, never far from the surface.

Worse, the conduct of the vote has intensified every division.

Labour members applaud a speech on day two of the party's conference in Brighton
Image: Labour members applaud a speech on day two of the party’s conference in Brighton

Losing would be bad enough but the question of the validity of the result will be remembered and it will fester.

The accusation will be that the leadership didn’t wish for the vote to proceed to a card vote, because if it had it would have been anonymous and therefore less amenable to pressure to fall into line.

It is also hardly ideal for Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has made so much about the merits of internal party democracy, who is wrestling with accusations of becoming a machine politician, to be seen to be part of a classic Labour Party stitch-up on the conference floor, on one of the most important votes the party has had for many years.

An anti-Brexit protester on Brighton beach during the Labour Party Conference
Image: Anti-Brexit protesters have been vocal during this year’s Labour conference

Worse, outside the Labour Party, this is a gift for Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents.

They will say that this was a moment where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour actively rejected Remain, that they kept the option of a Brexit, even if it is a Labour one, on the table.

Absurdly, that puts the national Labour Party at odds with the official platform in both Wales and Scotland.

I am very happy to wager that today’s hysterical scenes will feature on online advertising for Labour’s opponents by the end of the week.

And all for what? Because in the event that the stars align, that there is a Labour government, they do negotiate a new deal, they do put it to a referendum and they do hold a special conference, it is all but certain that the Labour Party will decide to campaign for Remain anyway.

Composite of the EU and British flags with a clock conceptual of Brexit and the departure of Britain from the European Union, full frame background view
Image: There are only 38 days until Brexit

This will all have been to keep open theoretical space that no-one believes the Labour Party or Jeremy Corbyn will ever be able to occupy.

Much of this, I think, comes from a misapprehension in the Corbyn movement.

Time and again, delegates took to the floor, repeating the same mantra: “We are not Leavers or Remainers, we’re socialists! We’re not for the 48%, we’re for the 99%.”

Leaving aside the fact that any political party would give its hind teeth for 48%, the vacuity of these statements isn’t hard to spot.

It may well be that many Labour delegates, like Jeremy Corbyn, would dearly like our political universe to be about another subject, but it is not.

Many voters do consider themselves Remainers or Leavers first. Again and again the Labour Party seems to dearly wish to provide an answer to a question which isn’t being asked.

As any humanities student, grappling with their essays will tell you, it’s a very risky strategy.

Open revolt and warfare as Labour opts for very risky Brexit strategy

Political correspondent @lewis_goodall The scenes at today’s party conference were exactly the sort of thing that in his day sent shivers down Tony Blair’s spine. Open revolt and warfare from the floor; bedraggled conference delegates from far flung CLPs attacking every side. Discontent, discord, disorder – all banished in the New Labour years.

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