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23 September 2018

How will Labour conference decide its policy on a second Brexit referendum?

Keir Starmer faces a gruelling night in a meeting with hundreds of activists, where they will iron out composite motions on Brexit.

By Patrick Maguire

Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will respect the will of Labour members if the party’s conference votes for a second Brexit referendum this week. But will they be given the chance to?

Corbyn was able to commit to respecting any vote in favour of a new poll with such confidence because of the likelihood that conference will not be be voting straightforwardly for or against one.

The working assumption of the leadership is that they will instead essentially vote on a fudge similar to the position adopted by Unite in July: that Labour is not calling for a new referendum and would prefer a general election, but is keeping the option of a so-called People’s Vote on the table.

There are, however, several bureaucratic hurdles to overcome before the leadership is in the clear. Just what Corbyn will be committed to by the time the party leaves Liverpool depends on the outcome of a process called compositing, which will see the 151 motions on Brexit submitted to conference by local parties condensed into one or more “composites”.

Those motions, which are intended to be broadly representative of the content of the 151 – many of which call for a second referendum – will go before conference. Keir Starmer’s team is quietly confident that they will reflect his stated position, which, like Unite’s, is first and foremost pro-general election, without ruling out the option of a second referendum.

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But the compositing process could present difficulties for those hoping for a clean resolution. What conference will vote on is to be decided at a special sub-meeting of Labour’s Conference Arrangements Committee this evening. Each local party who has submitted a motion is entitled to send two delegates, as are the trade unions, and the meeting will not break up until there is consensus in the room as to how to composite the original motions.

That leaves the potential for several different composite motions on Brexit, and with it a less predictable outcome on the conference floor. Starmer, however, has read every motion and believes there is enough common ground between his position and those of local parties to fashion an acceptable compromise.

“The distance between Keir and the members isn’t big,” a source close to the shadow Brexit secretary said. On his preference for a general election, he added: “The Brexit deal being voted down would be such a monumental failure of the government that it would be odd if Labour didn’t argue for a general election in the first instance.”

Starmer will make this argument to tonight’s meeting, which will kick off in the early evening. A late night is expected. “It should hopefully be finished for Bodyguard at 9pm,” the source said, “but the number of people will be well into triple figures.” Exactly what Brexit motions the meeting decides should go before members could be harder to predict than the leadership has assumed.