Part of our Labour Party Conference 2019 Bulletin: The ‘deal’ agreed between the leader’s office and the trade unions is another stitch-up  organised behind the backs of members, who should reject this unworkable policy

So far, some 90 constituencies have submitted resolutions on Brexit to Labour’s annual conference, due to open in Brighton on 23 September. 81 of them support a Remain position: not one supported Leave.

This should come as no surprise since earlier this year the Economic & Social Research Council in Sussex University found that 83% of Labour members and 60% of 2017 Labour voters voted Remain in 2016 and that 89% of Labour members and 73% of current Labour voters still think so in 2019.

Indeed 31% of Labour members who voted Leave in the Referendum now believe they were wrong. Having seen the actual deal on offer from the EU and experienced the nightmare of the negotiations and the threat of No Deal, this is no surprise.

Yet despite knowing what any minimally democratic consultation of the membership’s views would reveal on the very eve of Labour’s Conference Jeremy Corbyn has announced what the Party’s policy on Brexit will be:

“A Labour government would secure a sensible deal based on the terms we have long advocated, including a new customs union with the EU; a close single market relationship; and guarantees of workers’ rights and environmental protections. We would then put that to a public vote alongside remain. I will pledge to carry out whatever the people decide, as a Labour prime minister” The Guardian 18 September.

This is a rude slap in the face for the majority of members and the sovereign body of the party. Of course conference should reject it. But as Stephen Bush political editor of the New Statesman says in his “Morning Call”: 

“It sets up another set of intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations at Labour party conference as to what the exact shape of Labour’s Brexit policy should be.” 

Behind the scenes – that says it all! This attempt to prevent conference from representing the will of the membership will surprise no one who has been watching closely how the labour bureaucracy (affiliated unions and party alike) conducts the party’s business.

The Labour Bureaucracy

These powerful forces are working overtime to obstruct the views of Labour’s members finding reflection in the decision on Brexit that will come out of conference to make Labour go to the polls as a Brexit party. This intention was revealed by the position adopted of the Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO) on 10 September, itself a repetition of what was said at its meeting in July.

The general secretaries of the twelve affiliated trade unions who sit on TULO plus the leader, deputy leader, etc., endorsed Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to negotiate a “credible leave option” with the European Union, albeit with a promise to hold a referendum on this with the option to remain.

Delegates need to expose the backroom manoeuvres, name the names of those undertaking them, without fear or diplomacy. It is the trade union bureaucracy: especially that of Unite and specifically its general secretary Len McCluskey who will be working overtime to frustrate the cause of internationalism and unity with our sisters and brothers across Europe.

According to Paul Mason (New Statesman 11 September 2019 ) in TULO it was McCluskey who “.. pushed for the party to commit to a three to six month-long attempt to negotiate its own Brexit deal following a Labour election victory.”

And as if this wasn’t enough, he demanded “shadow cabinet members stop declaring their support for Remain in a second referendum, calling it a breach of discipline.”

Unite exerts an overwhelming personal, or rather personnel influence over the Labour leader and his cabal of advisers. His communications chief, Seumas Milne, his political adviser, Andrew Murray, a former CPB member, and Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff, are all close to McCluskey.

This hybrid position Corbyn calls constructive ambiguity but the adjective could not be further from the truth. On a question of capital importance for the economic life, of the country, one involving basic working class internationalist principles is neither honest nor convincing. 

Though dictated in part by electoral calculations (how to hold onto Labour seats where a majority of voters chose Leave) it is likely to have fatal results in an upcoming election as shown by the latest Opinium/Observer poll; only 17% approve of Corbyn’s handling of the Brexit issue, against 60% who disapprove. This gives Johnson and the Tories the largest lead over Labour (12%) since the 2017 general election.

The Corbyn-right-or-wrong brigade assert that other “more important” issues, whether these be climate change or the NHS, make clarity on Brexit unnecessary, perhaps even harmful. This is the height of folly since bungling Brexit could well deny Corbyn the opportunity to implement his other “more important” policies.

In addition, many console themselves with the argument that Jeremy will “play a blinder” when it comes to the campaign just as he did in 2017. What this ignores is that his shifty stance on Brexit –an issue the great majority of young activists loathes – will make it hard to persuade them to campaign for him as they did in 2015-17.

Demoralising the rank and file

Clive Lewis MP, one of the leading lights of “Love Socialism, Hate Brexit”, says;

“As an MP, I know what wins elections for Labour – it’s our members, who are more than 90% in favour of Remain. Our army of volunteers aren’t just foot soldiers, they’re members of a democratic movement. They need to feel ownership over our Brexit policy, they need to be excited and enthused by it. Yes, the people should have the final say, but for our morale we need a clear anti-Brexit position in Labour. That means we must campaign in any public vote for Remain.”

In reality Corbyn’s strategy will not stand the test of a general election. Brexiteers and Remainers will tear it apart. That is why it is vital that delegates in Brighton must refuse be deceived or blackmailed in the name of loyalty to the leader. Principles must come before personalities. Michael Chessum, national organiser for the Another Europe is Possible is dead right when he says;

“Support for an explicit Remain stance is evidently overwhelming. If backroom manoeuvres are deployed to stop this being debated on conference floor, it will be a disaster for morale and for Labour’s prospects……We need a debate and a vote at conference. Only if Labour can get clarity on this part of its policy can it fight the election on its domestic agenda.”

Jeremy Corbyn once promised a member-led party. Yet at each stage of the evolution of his Brexit line, the membership of the party has not been consulted.

Its milk and water approach will not win voters yearning for the fantasy world of “regaining our sovereignty.” They will continue to desert to full-blooded Brexit parties as led by Johnson and Farage.

More serious still it will lead to the loss of seats in Labour’s real heartlands; the big cities in the north as well as the south as well as the majority of Labour voters in most leave constituencies. The big majority of Labour’s activists are antiracist and internationalist. They and millions of Labour voters will be dispirited and demoralized by what they will correctly see as just another Brexit party. Many will continue to desert it.

Of course uncritical Corbyn supporters are arguing that, faced with the alternative of Johnson and the Tories, they will just have to vote Labour, even though it makes them sick. This is a shameful conversion to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson’s “triangulation: i.e. take the votes of the majority of your supporters for granted whilst pandering to the minority who have fallen victim to the narrative which blames Europe for destroying their industries and immigrants for stealing their jobs.

Lexit a reactionary utopia

The Lexiteers – following the Blue Labour type – argue that those opposed to Brexit are middle class “anywhere” cosmopolitans opposed to the working class of the heartlands. In fact, a report by the Runnymede Trust in 2017 discovered that 59% of the middle-classes voted leave compared with 24% of the working class. Apart from having a caricatured and antiquated picture of what and who constitutes the working class, it does not serve the interests of those who misplaced the blame for the social deprivation of the “left behind” areas.

As with the other sufferings capitalism inflicts on us – as the old saying goes – the main enemy is in our own country. Indeed the devastation of industries, the obliteration of social housing was launched by the very person who both Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson worship and whose revolution they plan to continue –Margaret Thatcher.

Playing to their prejudices is no way a service to disoriented working class voters. In fact what they deserved to get from socialists was, and is, to be patiently argued with by their party and persuaded that European workers are not to blame for their real deprivations. Combined with this they needed to be involved in drawing up and implementing huge regeneration programmes for their areas.

International solidarity

Last but not least Labour needs to explain to the whole working class that if we are to carry out really serious social reforms, let alone advance to a socialism which replaces capitalism, ends inequality, saves the planet, then this requires a joint struggle with our sisters and brothers in Europe and beyond. We can’t just get out of a neoliberal imperialist Europe, we have to change and indeed overthrow it with the aid of workers in France and Germany, in Greece and Spain, in Poland and Romania. 

As we write this rail and hospital workers in France are striking to fight Macron’s pension reforms and attacks on wages. In Germany, school students are walking out in protest against climate catastrophe. Labour should be holding out its hand to them, not “ending free movement” . It should be calling a European Social Forum where activists from the unions and social movements can gather and plan combined action. It should proclaim the goal of building on the ruins of the European Union a Socialist United States of Europe.

Let there be no doubt Brexit – soft or hard – puts up barriers and fosters racism and xenophobia. This can be seen in the dog whistle racism of a Johnson or Farage. No wonder Trump or the rising anti-immigrant parties of Europe love Brexit and have done all they can to support it. The Lexit supporters like the Socialist Workers Party know this in their hearts and want to demonstrate against the rising tide of the far right but without mentioning one of its biggest tap roots, Brexit.

In Brighton, insisting that the party’s Brexit policy comes to the floor of conference, must come before all other issues. This means insisting that the resolution supported by Another Europe is Possible, Labour for a Socialist Europe and Open Labour and endorsed by the Love Socialism Hate Brexit group of MPs, is taken without the fudge factory producing another rotten composite like last year’s. 

The Brighton Conference will have failed in its most burning task unless it not only wins Labour to campaign for remaining in and transforming the EU (put to a popular vote) but by making it clear that if Jeremy Corbyn wants to remains in office he will have to campaign for the party’s democratically decided policy. If he will not then he must make way for some one on the left who will.

Conference must decide to campaign in an early general election for a Labour government that pledges to end Brexit by consulting the people in a referendum and ensuring the hedge fund billionaires and right wing tabloids do not use nefarious means to influence the vote.

It must declare its solidarity with European workers on both sides of the Channel; defend continued free movement and a continent wide campaign to transform the EU from a weapon of big of capital into a workers’ Europe, open to the world.

It must insist on a radical manifesto that addresses the burning needs of the so-called left behind areas, making the corporations and financial institutions that plundered and despoiled them pay the cost of their restoration.

Let’s make this the Labour conference that broke through to party democracy.