Labour conference votes against becoming a Remain party

Jeremy Corbyn's preferred policy of neutrality won the day - but the real victor is likely to be Jo Swinson.

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Labour will not fight the next general election on a pro-Remain platform after conference delegates voted to endorse the leadership’s preferred position of neutrality until after a Corbyn government has negotiated its own deal. 

The position endorsed by Labour’s ruling national executive committee - which would see the party hold a special conference after the conclusion of negotiations with Brussels to determine how it would campaign in a second referendum - was voted through overwhelmingly on a show of hands, as did composite 14, another motion that called for the party to take a neutral position in any fresh public vote.

Composite 13, which called for Labour to campaign for Remain in any circumstances, was narrowly defeated. Wendy Nichols, the conference chair, refused to submit to calls from angry delegates for a card vote counted formally by tellers, which those pushing for a Remain position believe they would have won.

Why? The exuberant response of delegates when both of the motions endorsing the leadership’s stance passed provides the answer: “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” Effectively, as far as a majority of those voting saw it, the question was now whether they had confidence in Corbyn more broadly. Regardless of the pro-European complexion of the party’s activist base, they were always more likely to side with their leader over those who - in their view - were seeking to undermine him.

Though Corbyn has won a reprieve, the upshot of the result is not necessarily good news. Arguably, the real winner is not the Labour leader but Jo Swinson. Far from being resolved conclusively, the internal row over Brexit will rumble on and drown out its media messaging on literally anything else. Those MPs who had arrived at this conference (or watched from home) having had preliminary conversations with Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, are likely to find themselves drawn closer to the exit. And Nichols’ refusal to heed those noisy calls for a card vote, coming as it did after a series of rows over process, will only fuel suspicions that the outcome was somehow stitched up by the leadership.

An even bigger loser, however, could be Keir Starmer. Coming as it did, immediately after the shadow Brexit secretary made - to loud applause - repeated attempts to cast Labour as a Remain party, it is difficult to interpret those results as anything but a snub to the shadow Brexit secretary. The belief of the likes of Angela Rayner is that the membership’s loyalty to Corbyn will always trump its pro-Europeanism. Tonight’s votes suggest they could well be right.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.