The cracks in Labour's Brexit policy can no longer be ignored. The party needs its own 'meaningful vote' - or conference is going to be a disaster.
By-elections are seldom reliable indicators of the public mood, but next week’s vote in Peterborough could have profound implications for the Labour Party’s internal debate about Brexit. There are lessons from Labour’s pre-Blair history, which to some extent appear now to be repeating themselves.
The facts on the ground in Peterborough are particularly relevant: the constituency voted 61% in favour of Brexit in 2016, Labour’s candidate is a competent and highly-regarded Unite activist, Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey is leading the defence of Labour’s current policy.
Throughout the rest of the country, hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members are in despair as a result of the European elections. Although Tom Watson’s Twitter surveys can be dismissed by those who simply don’t like Tom Watson, there is plenty of other evidence that the vast majority of rank-and-file activists are solidly for a “revoke and remain” policy on Brexit.
But the real issues go much wider than Brexit alone. They concern Labour Party democracy, and what it means to belong to a members-led political organisation.
At Labour’s 2017 party conference, members were not allowed to debate Brexit at all. Last year’s conference produced a composite that was so all-pleasing (i.e. meaningless) it could enjoy unanimous support. Local constituency Labour Parties are now gearing themselves up for Brighton in September with the slogan “we won’t get fooled again.”
These are the same rank-and-file activists who elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. Overwhelmingly, it seems to me, they still want him to be party leader. But the cracks in the Brexit policy can no longer be ignored. There needs to be a meaningful vote to establish whatever policy will go into the next general election manifesto, and inform the approach in Parliament.
The choices are pretty straightforward: the Labour Party is either the party that wants Britain in the European Union, out of the European Union, or half-in-half-out of the European Union on the basis of some hitherto-unknown negotiated deal. Not the binary choice of the 2016 referendum, but we now know that those are the three real choices.
The union/member divide
The lessons from history relate very much to the sort of organisation the Labour Party now wants to be. The 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader resulted from a coalition of two historically antagonistic parts of the Left, which four years ago were united by their contempt for Tony Blair and all his works. That coalition is now under huge strain.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was active in the Tony Benn for Deputy campaign and a host of single-issue campaigns, usually around the environment and nuclear weapons, those antagonisms were sometimes characterised as “Trots v Tankies.”
Forty years ago, very few of the rank-and-file party activists were actually Trotskyists. Very few of the trade union general secretaries were actually Stalinists (although a handful were card-carrying members of the Communist Party, rather than the Labour Party, which was sometimes interesting.)
As the old heavy-industry unions merged, notably the Transport & General Workers Union and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, so the power and influence of the surviving general secretaries increased. For Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, and all who followed, you can now read Len McCluskey.
Back in the days before Blair, whose leadership led to a massive decline in Labour Party membership, CLPs were dominated by the Left.
Party conferences were an annual bun-fight between CLPs and union barons whose block-votes were relied upon by party leaders to give them “wriggle-room” on any given controversy. They would then triangulate to meet the whims of increasingly-influential focus groups. Even 40 years ago, people like Benn were railing against the pollsters and demanding that party democracy should be the only court for policy-making.
The rights and wrongs of Labour’s approach to Brexit have their foundations in attitudes to class, culture and the clearly-expressed views of the voters – such as the 2016 referendum, in last week’s euro elections, and in Peterborough next week.
Should Labour fail to hold Peterborough (the bookmakers have The Brexit Party as odds-on favourites) the results of the inquest are already depressingly familiar: either we were not Brexit enough, or we will have failed to motivate the Remain vote. On the sidelines, Paul Mason and Labour chair Ian Lavery will continue to shout at each other.
Members must decide
The trade union link is vital to the Labour Party. But the spectacular growth in party membership since 2015 was, and remains, a game-changer. Members must now decide.
It seems to me that there are entirely pragmatic reasons for Labour to conduct an all-member ballot, right now, to decide and articulate a coherent Brexit policy. There need to be winners and losers.
And then we move on: talking about the economy, health, education and all the other issues which for three years have been gasping for oxygen. The alternative will be a ticket-only gore-fest of disunity at Brighton.
Graham Smith is a journalist based in Cornwall, and chair of the North Cornwall CLP. In the early 1980s he was a staff writer for Tribune.
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