Labour is set for a battle between members and Union bosses on Brexit

Trade union bosses see themselves as uniquely entitled in Labour.

The Left of Labour has dominated the party for a few years now but there are signs that the Left’s unity may be fraying.

The Labour Party finds itself consumed by “class vs culture” wars and the return of a group which historically has seen itself as uniquely entitled, the trade union general secretaries.

Because Labour Party individual membership now accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total, the stage is set for quite a confrontation in Brighton – particularly over Brexit.

The individual members are the radical progressives, determined to embrace concepts of international socialism offered by membership of the European Union.

The Trade Union General Secretaries (some of them) see themselves as defenders of those “socially conservative” Labour voters who felt the EU did nothing good for them and who voted “leave” in 2016.

Labour’s current position on Brexit is very different to that which stumbled out of the NEC meeting on 30th April, and which comprehensively trashed the party’s chances in the European Parliament elections.

On the face of it, “constructive ambiguity” has gone and in its place is the absolute promise of a second referendum, with “remain” as an option. Sadly, this position as defined today will also melt under the glare of an election campaign. 

Indeed, viewers of Question Time, who watched Emily Thornberry struggle to explain how she would negotiate a new Brexit deal, only to then campaign against it in a referendum, will seek their revenge at the ballot box.  There is still an “ambiguity” which must be slain in Brighton.

I was intrigued to see reports from this year’s Trade Union Congress, claiming that Len McCluskey is at odds with John McDonnell over Brexit.  McCluskey is said to have told Jeremy Corbyn that Labour must not take sides in any referendum.

Leaving aside the implications of McCluskey trying to chuck his weight about inside the Labour Party, and what this means for party democracy, it underlines the emergence of a “new left” (as represented, as always, by the CLPs and grassroots members) and a “new right” (traditionally the party bureaucrats and union bosses.)  

The more things change, the more they stay the same.   When the pundits said that Labour was going back to the 1970s, they might have been more accurate than they realised.

I have always been, and consider that I still am, an Old Bennite.  I voted against the Common Market in 1975 on the grounds that it was profoundly undemocratic. 

In those days, there was no elected European Parliament – and this was the principal objection of radicals like Tony Benn.  You could not have socialism without democracy. It was true then, and it’s true today.

Seeking inspiration, I turned to Tony Benn’s diary for January 1973:  “I continued throughout 1973 to argue for a Referendum on this vital constitutional question; the proposal was a popular one in the Party nationally and the campaign in support developed strength, appealing to some Labour leaders as a way of getting the Party off the hook politically, and preserving its unity by sub-contracting the decision to the electorate as a whole.”

Benn, supported by Michael Foot and Peter Shore, subsequently succeeded in persuading Harold Wilson to allow a free vote in the referendum.  They lost, and in any case it turned out to be only a temporary fix. Within ten years the Labour Party was well and truly back on the hook, politically.

In Brighton, members must face down the new anti-democratic tendencies which are emerging at the top of the Labour Party. 

Party bureaucrats and Trade Union General Secretaries do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Stitch-ups in smoke-filled rooms really are best left in the 1970s. 

On Brexit, the idea of a guaranteed referendum is at least defensible in a way that the disastrous policy in April/May was not.  A second referendum does offer a democratic solution of sorts – but it would only be truly democratic if it included, as an option, a No Deal Brexit.  

Political parties exist to lead public opinion, not to follow it.  A referendum which recorded a majority for hanging and flogging would never be acceptable.  The same can be said of the 2016 Brexit result, seeking as it did to cram three answers into a binary question.

This week’s developments at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth are very helpful to Labour. 

The Liberal Democrats’ new hard-line policy might be principled, but actually looks like an act of desperation as Labour finally sprints towards a coherent position.

And the new Lib Dem policy has not gone down well in the large, rural, pro-Brexit constituencies of the South West – which include many of the seats they want to take off the Tories.

Without their anti-Brexit policy, the Lib Dems are completely pointless – in the same way that Nigel Farage has to keep finding ways to be more extreme than Boris Johnson, or else face extinction.

Labour now has an opportunity to claim sole ownership of the only principled and truly democratic answer – a referendum which gets it right, in a way that the 2016 referendum got it wrong.  

The next referendum should be clearly binding on Parliament, rather than advisory.  But crucially, it must find a way of asking a question which has three answers, not only two: leave with a deal, leave without a deal, or remain.  

We already use preferential voting systems for mayors and Police & Crime Commissioners.  There are three options. We should be honest about this, or risk continuing unrest.

Technically, it is possible.  It fixes those who claim their preference (eg for a No Deal Brexit) has been kept off the ballot paper by the “elite.”  Offering a No Deal option of course carries risks. But it is less of a risk than negotiating a new deal, only to then campaign against it.

A three-way referendum is an easy sell on the doorstep, even in those much-maligned “socially conservative” Northern constituencies which the union barons and the party bureaucrats condescendingly think of as too stupid to understand economics. 

The three-way referendum can be sold as: “You like us on everything except Brexit? Don’t worry, you can vote Labour and then take your pick in a referendum…”

But it is crucial that Labour knows inside-out its own position on how it would campaign in that referendum.  “Wait and see” was a disastrous policy in May and it is impossible to sell it now.

By adopting a clear “Remain and Reform” policy towards Europe, Labour can reconnect with the young activists it needs to win an election.

The best democratic solution is a general election with a clear manifesto commitment, based on principle.  It’s what Jeremy Corbyn does best.

Labour should declare unambiguously for “Remain and Reform” and promise a truly democratic, binding referendum as its manifesto promise.

Graham Smith is chair of North Cornwall CLP and editor of

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6 Responses to “Labour is set for a battle between members and Union bosses on Brexit”

  1. steve

    ” leave with a deal, leave without a deal, or remain. ”

    The three option referendum is an Establishment stitch-up – intended to divide the Brexit vote produce the ‘right result’: remain.

    This approach will only lead to the deepening of the divide within the UK

  2. Tom Sacold

    The Trade Unions have always been, and continue to be, the life blood of the Labour Party. They have always provided the core of MPs that understand how to manage and coordinate political organisation. They have provided stability and coherence through out good times and bad times. Even under the Tory-lite leadership of Blair and Brown, they provided the solid base for the work of the party.

  3. Gary

    No, you can’t seriously advocate for a referendum (second one) on a matter which the FIRST referendum’s result has yet to be implemented. The ONLY democratic referendum that could be run is one where it gives a choice on the MANNER in which we leave. Currently there are TWO choices. May’s Withdrawal Agreement or No Deal. Neither of these deals with ‘Future Relationship’ but obviously, even in the event of ‘No Deal’ a future relationship would be negotiated AFTER leaving instead of during a two year implementation period. Something that the press are too lazy to point out.

    Whilst you, and many others to be fair, say that the LibDems are pointless I have to remind you of recent events. Corbyn, with their support, COULD have won a no confidence, became PM on a temporary basis, delayed Brexit and then called a GE. But, as they wouldn’t support Corbyn, even for a period of weeks, this couldn’t happen. This looked like the LibDems had seriously shot themselves in the foot, but maybe not. By taking what can only be called a hard line on Brexit and bringing in a policy of revoking Article 50 without reference to the public (I’m not counting a GE win as they COULD win a GE with a minority of votes courtesy of our FPTP system) they are ‘shifting the conversation’ To counteract this and ensure they don’t lose the ‘Remain’ vote Labour will likely take a more hardline view on this themselves, thus the LibDems have achieved their aim. This is much the same way in which the Green Party have been able to exert undue influence in Scotland despite being the smallest party at Holyrood.

    But make no mistake, this is a terrible idea. A second referendum, never mind revocation, would lead to a complete loss of faith in politics by the general public. Not just rabid Leavers either. 90% of the public fully accept the result and this manufactured ‘anger and division’ we hear of is only to suit the extreme ends of both arguments. The public simply wants it to end and that is all.

    I’ve yet to see a balanced piece of writing on this. Arguments on both sides are polemic, condescending and frankly undemocratic. We, the public, are not stupid and won’t tolerate being treated as such…

  4. Susan

    Trade Unions should always have a say in the Labour party decisions as if it was not for the Trade Unions we would not have any workers rights. They are a window into the line of work. They should also have a say as it is their role to do the best for their members . Labour was created from the Trade Unions and I for one welcome their input.

  5. BobB

    Gary says “90% of the public fully accept the result …” [of the 2016 referendum]
    Have you got any evidence for this, Gary?
    I ask this because polls show consistent majorities now think (1) it was a mistake to vote leave and (2) that leaving (especially without a deal) will cause significant economic damage and hardship. So despite thinking it was the wrong decision that will lead to serious damage, 90% of people still think we should respect the 2016 result. What amazing belief in democracy! Then again, maybe you made it up.

  6. Craig Mackay

    There has long been an imbalance in the influence at the top of the Labour Party. Len McCluskey is a very strong left-wing leader of Unite. For many years he and Jeremy Corbyn have been very close. Corbyn does not have the drive or indeed intellect of McCluskey. Both share a view of the European Union that is seriously out of date. In particular they worry that a left-wing policy involving significant nationalisation is not allowed under EU rules. That is simply not true. There is nothing to stop the UK doing exactly what is already the case in many other countries. Both however are clear that they really want the UK to leave the EU to leave it free to operate its economy as it wishes. The economic policies of John McDonnell and others are claimed to be hard left but they are entirely mainstream in many European countries already. They would transform this country for the better and this can be done so much more effectively while part of the EU. Indeed I am confident that our experiences will be so positive that it may have a substantial influence on the way other EU countries run their economies in the future.

    One of the biggest problems on the left and indeed with some of the comments above is that there is a sycophantic respect for the result of the referendum. It is not “The Will of the People”. It is the will of Cambridge Analytica, it is the Will of Nigel Farage, and the Will of Aaron Banks and his dodgy millions possibly from diamond mines in Africa. After three years the British population have a rather different appreciation of what “leaving the EU” might actually mean for them and to assert that the original (purely advisory) referendum was so sacred that it had to be implemented no matter what the cost and certainly without a confirmatory referendum is simply preposterous.

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