Last year Labour did not debate Brexit at conference. As delegates prepare to meet in Liverpool at the end of the month RICHARD ANGELL outlines why Brexit must not be ignored again
There was a significant omission from last year’s Labour conference – a discussion on Brexit.
The biggest issue facing the country was not available for debate by the mass membership that now makes up the official opposition. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer made a speech but party members – who are overwhelmingly keen for Labour to keep Britain in the single market – were not even allowed to ask questions let alone share their views.
Why did this happen? The Jeremy Corbyn-supporting group Momentum told its supporters a lie. In the ‘how to vote’ guide distributed to the group’s members by email, they were informed Brexit was ‘already set to be debated on the Monday morning conference session’ and therefore other issues could be prioritised. The delegates dutifully voted for NHS, housing, social care and rail – all very worthy – but realised they had been hoodwinked.
Momentum showed its organisational muscle but exposed the generational struggle in the Corbynite camp: on the one hand the Corbyn-era Bennites – committed eurosceptics for decades – and, on the other, the largely pro-European crowds that cheered him at Glastonbury and voted Labour last year. The latter have not given up the fight to save the country from the Brexit abyss.
Fearing the group’s leadership would do the same at this year’s conference, young socialists in Momentum have spent the summer organising to change the organisation’s position. In theory, not so hard.
If 10% of Momentum members request a ballot to change policy, the whole membership get polled. Last month more than 4,000 people demanded the constitutional right to a Momentum vote on a People’s Vote, triggering this process. However, their best efforts were thwarted.
Last weekend, when Momentum’s national committee met, rather than choose to seek to change Labour’s policy on Brexit they decided to throw their weight behind changing Labour MPs and call for mandatory reselections.
It is almost like they are doing the Tories’ job for them, and is another sign of that the chronic problems dogging the party are not limited to Brexit.
Officials might have hoped this week’s election of the NEC and the decision – finally – to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism might have settled matters on that front. But the chaotic scenes outside the meeting and the ongoing criticism for the ‘caveats’ it included, mean that this issue will rumble well on into the conference season too, and make progress on Brexit all the more difficult.
So while Momentum’s national committee concentrated on mandatory reselections last weekend, they watered down the promised all-member plebiscite on Brexit and instead offered a multi-part questionnaire before Christmas. This is a fudge, and shows little regard for Momentum’s members and its agreed process.
But all hope is not lost. A myriad of anti-Brexit groups in the Labour movement are working with local parties to get pro-single market and pro-People’s Vote motions to Labour party conference. Even the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy group – chaired by the now-infamous Peter Willsman – has its own Brexit text.
A huge boost this week came from the big beast trade union GMB when it came out for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. They follow the likes of Community trade union, TSSA and the non-affiliated trade unions Prospect, the Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Council.
It is no surprise that with the very real threat that Brexit poses to the NHS, the health unions feel this strongly about a final say for their members. Unite the Union, one of Labour’s biggest affiliates, is officially open to a ballot of the British public. All is still to play for.
Members across the country want their say on Labour’s Brexit policy. When the party meets in Liverpool later this month is has a final chance to let is membership have a say. Momentum should not stop this again. If they do, the country might never forgive their hero Jeremy Corbyn.
Richard Angell is director of Progress, a founding organisation of LabourSay.EU