It was inevitable that Brexit was to be an important feature of Labour’s annual conference, and so it has proven to be.
Labour has struggled to find a clear and distinctive voice in the Brexit debate. It softly supports leaving, whilst at the same time being pro-European and now looking at a so-called “People’s Vote”. It’s no surprise that many find their position confusing.
The divisions in Labour have also been obvious to see. While the membership is broadly supportive of remaining in the EU, its leadership – for both political and ideological reasons – finds itself taking a more nuanced position.
The pro-EU membership therefore took it on themselves to force Labour’s hand. Motions were submitted from constituency Labour Parties across the country – amounting to more than 100 – and painstakingly “composited” into one overarching motion over five and a half hours on Sunday. The result was a fudge. The sticking point was restricting the motion to referring to the “terms of Brexit”, thus taking remain off the table. The leadership conceded the point and thus left open a “remain” option. Yet confusion reigned as John McDonnell seemed to suggest, after the motion was agreed, that remaining in the EU was not on the table, regardless of the text of the motion. It was a suggestion hastily denied by shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer. Such is the nature of fudges.
Speaking on Tuesday, Starmer sought to create clarity, rally the Labour faithful. What he did was show that the membership is fully behind a vote with “remain” on the ballot, but in his language, he failed to make it clear that that is what would happen.
He said that the first preference was for a general election. Failing this, Labour will campaign for a public vote, if needed, to break a Parliamentary impasse. Then, in a departure from his prepared words, he added “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.” This addition led to a long and rapturous standing ovation from those present in the room. The message to McDonnell was clear.
Yet, Starmer’s words are riddled with equivocations. If there isn’t a general election and If there isn’t Parliamentary consensus, then there will be a campaign for a vote, in which there may be an option to remain. You could be forgiven for being confused.
The reason for this confusion is buried in the politics of the situation. Labour has its eyes on a bigger prize – toppling the Government and winning any subsequent election. With Theresa May facing a tough conference herself, Labour smells blood. Withholding its support for any deal, and thus endangering May’s ability to get it through Parliament, makes its fate that much more uncertain. It also means that if, as seems likely, the eventual deal pleases no one, Labour can place all the blame firmly on the Government’s doorstep.
Labour is not being blindly idealistic. Labour’s goal is to topple Theresa May and keep its membership onside.
Brexit comes second.