There could have been a debate – a real debate, ending in a real vote – about the single market at the Labour Party conference. There wasn’t.
Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday was riding high. It had been an exuberant gathering. “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” the delegates hymned. Relaxed, smiling broadly, he delivered a 75-minute speech which held the audience rapt: this must turn Theresa May green. He had found himself.
The price of this was what had happened the previous Sunday, when an email was circulated to delegates. It came from Momentum. It suggested four topics they should choose for the members’ debate. Each debate would be followed by a vote which would influence party policy. The four topics Momentum suggested were social care, the NHS, housing and rail. These were all, said the email, “crucial issues that the public care about.”
The public also care about Brexit, and motions had been received from 27 constituency parties, most of which argued for staying permanently in the single market. More than thirty MPs, plus MEPs, Labour peers and others had written to the leadership on the same subject. Between 70 and 80 per cent of Labour MPs are said to be Remainers, and roughly two-thirds of the membership.
Brexit, said Momentum coldly in its email, was “a potentially time-consuming cul-de-sac, and a topic that will be covered elsewhere.” What it meant by this was that a debate on Brexit had been tabled for Monday morning. But it was a debate that carried no vote. The delegates weren’t told that.
The delegates obediently chose the four issues they were told to choose, sidelining Brexit, which had been on the original list; but they resented being strong-armed and accused the leadership of “swerving one of the most important issues for a generation.” The NEC re-thought. It issued a one-and-a-half-page statement on Sunday evening setting out the party’s position on Brexit and saying that there would be a vote. However, it wouldn’t be the vote the delegates wanted.
The debate was held, and a vote was taken – on whether to support existing Party policy. At present this is to stay in the customs union and the single market until the end of the transition period, with a fudge about what happens next. The delegates, deprived of a chance to vote for an alternative, voted to support it.
There’s something particularly distasteful about this bit of bullying. The most despicable aspect of the Tories’ handling of Brexit is the way they put party before country. Here, in open view, was the Labour party doing the same thing.
The forced display of unity promptly fractured in recriminations, but the leader had been “saved embarrassment,” and that was what mattered. Jeremy Corbyn has gone from being the party’s major problem to being its most precious asset. Nothing must be allowed to dim the lustre. And in the end it didn’t. He stayed out of the Momentum row and the speech he gave on Wednesday was a masterclass in how to talk to an audience. In the course of it, he devoted about ten minutes to Brexit.
Those ten minutes had been worked on hard. Almost until the end, the tone was sure, the language was true:
“There is no bigger test in politics than Brexit now, an incredibly important and complex process, that cannot be reduced to repeating fairy stories from the side of a bus or waiting 15 months to state the obvious.”
The Brexiteers are an easy target. But he hit them hard: “…hopelessly inept… more interested in posturing for personal advantage than in getting the best deal for our country… Never has the national interest been so ill-served on such a vital matter.”
He warned of the danger of a “powerful faction” of Tories creating a tax haven on the shores of Europe, destroying jobs and public services. Then he got down to business:
… “That is why Labour has made clear that Britain should stay within the basic terms of the single market and customs union for a limited transition period.”
“But beyond that transition, our task is a different one.”
Suddenly we could have been listening to the Maybot: “It is to unite everyone in our country around a progressive vision of what Britain could be…”
i.e., there is no vision.
“Labour is the only party that can bring together those who voted leave and those who backed remain…”
No party can do that.
“A Labour Brexit that puts jobs first… one that guarantees access to the single market -”
That’s the fudge. What does “access” mean? And how do you secure it?
“…and establishes a new cooperative relationship with the EU.” Oh, do stop.
He hauled the boat off the rocks just before it sank. “How Britain leaves the European Union is too important to be left to the Conservatives.”
The repainting of zebra crossings is too important to be left to the Conservatives.
What emerges from this is Corbyn’s utter lack of interest in Brexit. He believes it has to happen because “the people voted for it,” but what it means, where it’s come from, where it might go – these don’t even cross his mind. As for the EU itself, it is less than a spectre in his speech. I find even Boris Johnson’s fervid demonisation of the European Union preferable to this bloodless impassivity.
The European Union leaves Corbyn cold because he doesn’t understand it and he thinks it would stand in the way of his socialist dream for Britain.
The only politician who has the power to stop Brexit therefore won’t lift a finger to do so. We have been here before – since, in fact, the dispiriting days of the referendum campaign. Last year, however, there was a strong chance he would be dislodged; that chance has now gone. Indeed, apart from Brexit, most Labour voters would fight tooth and nail to keep him where he is, after that extraordinary manifesto.
And because of the manifesto, and because he has suddenly developed the charisma of a winner, it’s probable that many of the Labour delegates who wanted a vote on the single market nevertheless appreciate Momentum’s logic. No Labour party member wants to damage the party’s chances of winning the next election, and disunity doesn’t win elections. They think they can put a fence around Brexit and carry on as usual. But that is a mistake.
It is not possible to say “apart from Brexit.” Brexit dwarfs everything with its implications and ramifications, its threatened bonfire of rights and its expansion of executive power. It will touch everything. There is no “apart” from Brexit.
This means that if the Labour Party comes to power, and it has allowed Brexit to take place, it will have to build its socialist utopia on the basis Brexit has created. And it will find it cannot.
Why not? “There won’t be enough money,” said Alastair Campbell bluntly last week to Owen Jones.
What would be required for the construction of the kind of society Corbyn envisages? National utilities run for the benefit of the consumers, not the boardroom; public services reinvigorated and properly funded; sufficient and affordable housing? An NHS free of its shackles at last?
Noble aims, every one. They all require money. Lots of it.
If we crash out of the EU without an agreement, which is the most likely scenario, two sorts of people will do well out of it: the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the likes of the Mafia.
People like Jacob Rees-Mogg are averse to paying tax. The Mafia don’t pay tax at all. With luck, there might be enough in the coffers to fund the police, the Border Force and our contribution to NATO.
If by some miracle we do manage an “orderly Brexit” into Corbyn’s “progressive vision of Britain,” we will still be lumbered with the costs of Brexit. These will include paying the numerous subsidies the EU used to pay, stumping up for access to this and that indispensable European institution like Euratom, funding the creation of substitutes for EU institutions that Britain has cut itself off from and can’t do without, like the ECJ, and, of course, loss of earnings owing to the flight of businesses abroad, which means loss of tax base. This is the sunlit upland Corbyn will inherit.
Hasn’t anyone told Jeremy he can only have one of the two things he wants?
He must ditch his Islington Brexit. Most of his MPs are Remainers. They must have the courage of the Lib Dems’ convictions, rather than Theresa May’s, and campaign for a second vote on the EU “when” – as Vince Cable says – “the facts are known.” This is perfectly democratic, which is a lot more than can be said for the Government’s Henry VIII hocus-pocus, and it is perfectly rational, which is more than can be said for what is going on in Brussels.
It will leave him to deal with the EU when he wants to change the economic basis of Britain, which will be a great deal easier than dealing with no money.
And, next time, it won’t require the sinister manoeuvres of Momentum to get it through Conference.