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24 September 2019

Labour’s policy vote suggests Brexit isn’t yet the wedge issue that Corbyn’s internal enemies hoped

But beyond the leader's office, the picture is less rosy. 

By Patrick Maguire

They’ll be dancing in the streets of East Dunbartonshire: Labour conference has voted against adopting a policy of backing Remain in all circumstances, instead endorsing Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred position of neutrality until after his government has negotiated its own deal with Brussels.

That means – to the dismay of Remainers on the frontbench and in the Parliamentary Labour Party – that the opposition will head into any election without the straightforward Remain line that many had assumed would be the preferred option of conference delegates yesterday. In the end, however, the result was clear – despite grumbles that the show of hands was too close not to warrant a formally counted card vote.

What explains the result? The conference hall sang the answer after it voted overwhelmingly for the motion favoured by the leadership and Unite, its biggest trade union ally: “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” Much has and will be written about the pro-Europeanism of Labour members, but, when push comes to shove, loyalty to the Labour leader and his political judgement trumps all.

Whatever way you slice it, last night’s outcome was the best Corbyn could have hoped for in the immediate term: it saves him the pain of adopting a policy in which he manifestly does not believe, and averted the nightmare scenario of defeat from the conference floor on the biggest political issue of the day. It also suggests – for now, at least – that a critical mass of the membership is still behind him. It appears that Brexit is not yet the wedge issue his internal enemies hoped. Nor, for that matter, will it win Keir Starmer or Emily Thornberry the leadership by itself.

But beyond the leader’s office, the picture is less rosy. Speaking at a fringe event in the immediate aftermath of last night’s votes, Keir Starmer said that Labour would shift to a pro-Remain position very quickly after an election anyway, regardless of the letter of the policy. He might well be right but like-minded colleagues fear that the upshot of not shifting to Remain is that Labour will making that decision having lost seats and having sunk further into opposition. That’s certainly what Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems think.

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And as far as what’s left of conference goes, it means voters listening to music radio or watching the six o’clock news will hear even less about Labour’s policy offer and even more about the fact that half of the party feels it doesn’t have a clear line on Brexit. Where last year the story that the party sought to tell at conference was of rebuilding Leave Britain, any narrative planned for 2019 has been lost in the noise.

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