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  1. Election 2024
18 September 2019

Labour begins conference season with three different rows

Students and Brexit and Wales, oh my.

By Stephen Bush

Labour have kicked off the run-up to their conference with a series of rows.

The party’s ruling national executive has voted to disaffiliate Labour Students, the official body of the party’s student wing, from the party.

Labour Students has long been a bulwark of the Labour right, and the Corbynsceptics have retained control thanks to the usual Labour method of fiddling the rules and restricting the franchise in the name of grassroots engagement. It meets the same end as its predecessor body, which was folded up by the NEC because it was at the time controlled by the Labour left.

The real reason the row matters is because the loss of Labour Students’ rights as an affiliate means that it cannot be used as a shock absorber for the party’s Corbynsceptics on the ground. That makes it harder for Corbynsceptics to be nominated for parliamentary constituencies and, in theory, for the leadership.

In another assertion of control, the Labour NEC has also voted to assert that it, not the executive committee of the Welsh Labour party, controls how Welsh Labour MPs are reselected, in a public rebuke to Corbyn’s long-time ally and the First Minister Mark Drakeford. 

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The row matters internally because it means that Welsh and Scottish Labour MPs will face the slightly more stringent reselection hurdle of their colleagues in England – but given that the new change has, thus far, resulted in just one full selection, it is unclear to what extent it will change much.

Where it may matter more is handing a stick to Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price to beat Drakeford with. We’ve all seen how the branch office tag has been deployed so effectively over long years against the Scottish Labour party, and if Drakeford loses this tussle (which is not guaranteed and the row has a little yet to run), then it is, of course, helpful to Price to be able to argue that the man he wants to replace as First Minister cannot decide how Welsh MPs are selected.

Also helping Plaid Cymru is the division over Brexit. Corbyn has reiterated the party’s Brexit policy in an article for the Guardian in which he effectively declares his intention to remain a neutral figure in the event of a second referendum under a Labour government. He pledged to negotiate a new Brexit deal and then put it to a referendum, with a choice between accepting his deal and remaining the European Union. 

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.  The problem with Labour’s present position is that, while it is perfectly coherent to want a version of Brexit you can live with on the ballot paper, the party’s frontbenchers have repeatedly demonstrated just how tough that position is to defend on TV and radio. 

Also, having seen a Conservative Prime Minister negotiate a Brexit deal that takes the United Kingdom out of the single market, the commons fisheries policy, the common agricultural policy and the domestic reach of the European Court of Justice be derided for delivering a fake Brexit, it is hard to see how a Labour Prime Minister negotiating something softer will go over well with Britain’s Leave voters. 

That’s one reason why Jo Swinson opted to change the Liberal Democrat policy on Brexit: she concluded that the party was simply not in a position to negotiate a credible Remain option and it risked creating more problems than it solved on the campaign trail. Several senior Liberal Democrats who weren’t, at first, keen on the new approach have cited Labour’s difficulties as a reason for their change of heart.

But what’s the better alternative? One idea that is floating around the Labour party is that the party should simply back a referendum on the withdrawal agreement as negotiated by Theresa May, as fundamentally the contours of any exit deal will not substantially change. It avoids the difficult questions the current position does, but at the cost of opening up a new set of yet-thornier ones, such as – If you’re happy to enact the withdrawal agreement, why didn’t you just vote for it? What were the two months spent negotiating tweaks to it with Theresa May even about?

Match the Liberal Democrat offer? Corbyn has no personal appetite to move to a full revoke position and could not carry the party with him if he did. In any case, the Liberal Democrat path to parliamentary gains or even the full-blown realignment they hope they can pull off doesn’t run through voters who are opposed to revocation – but Labour’s does, unless you think that a Corbyn-led Labour party is about to become the natural home for Conservative Remainers in Esher & Walton. 

The difficult truth that all sides of Labour will want to avoid at conference is that their best Brexit strategy would have been for Jeremy Corbyn to use the influence and power he had in the autumn of 2017 to put a clear and explicit set of negotiating asks for a Brexit deal to party conference and to bind the party to them. As “first, invent time travel” is off the table, this conference will instead be spent arguing over a series of undesirable and risky Brexit policies. 

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