Labour will debate Brexit, but the real fight won’t start until 2022

What form of fudge Labour commits to on Brexit this week is a lot less important than what ends up in its next manifesto.

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Labour Party conference will debate Brexit thanks to the votes of trade union delegates. The matter is one of eight priority motions to be discussed, alongside housing, Windrush, schools, the economy, in-work poverty, government contracts (ie outsourcing and PFI) economic policy and Palestine.

Under the rules of party conference, trade union delegates pick four topics and party members pick another four. That the major trade unions had already thrown their weight behind the Brexit motion meant that it was certain to get on so the large card vote (close to 150,000) that Brexit attracted from party delegates is a measure of how important the issue is to Labour activists (for context, the NHS only received 121,000 votes while most of the other defeated motions were way back on far less than 80,000).

So I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that the issue was beaten out among members by four other issues – today’s result confirms, rather than contradicts, the idea that Brexit is an issue of significant importance for Labour party members.

But what will they be voting on? That’s the tricky part. The party leadership will hammer out a form of words they can live with in tonight’s compositing meeting – the process whereby the hundreds of disparate motions on an issue brought by constituency parties are fashioned into one single motion. Patrick details how the process works well here, but the central thrust is that compositing is the moment when the party leadership refines the will of the membership into something it can live with. In this case, the final language on Brexit will be something very far from support for a people’s vote and will likely be a motion giving carte blanche to the Labour Party’s current policy of not ruling anything out or anything in.

And the difficulty for anyone wanting more than that is that, at present, while Brexit is important to party members, they still trust the party leadership and are more than happy to give them that freedom and flexibility.

But take note of that 150,000 strong card vote, because the Brexit battle that matters in Labour isn’t really about a People’s Vote, as Labour is in any case too divided to actually secure on in the Commons. It’s the battle over what Labour’s Brexit policy at the 2022 election is.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.