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16 October 2018

What did we learn about Brexit at the party conferences? As it turns out, very little

Talk of leaving the European Union exhausted the fringe, but we're still no clearer on what happens next.

By Anand Menon

Thank God that’s over. Three weeks of too little sleep, too many meals (and wine), and too much politics. I’m considering party conference rehab. But before disappearing for a detox, I’ve been trying to get to grips with what, if anything, I’ve learnt from the annual gatherings of Labour, the Conservatives and the SNP. (Apologies Lib Dems, but organise your conference to coincide with my birthday and I’m not going.)

Brexit, of course, was a major theme at all the gatherings. In Birmingham, for the Tories, it dominated the fringe. The largest crowds gathered to hear those most openly critical of the Prime Minister’s plans, while  ministers addressed a half-empty hall (the SNP avoided the half-empty look by scheduling fringe events only when there was nothing going on in the plenary session).

Labour hardly demonstrated impressive levels of unity on the subject either. Our own fringe event featured three MPs, each of whom disagreed with the other on the way ahead. However, the tone was markedly less hostile and aggressive, not least because the party policy that emerged from the conference seemed to consist of a mixture of the various positions being propounded.

The Labour leadership were also doubtless helped by the fact that a number of their more outspoken parliamentary critics decided against making the trip to Liverpool. Someone suggested to me that there were only a hundred or so MPs in attendance (out of 257).  Which presumably implies that the (relative) calm of conference might not be maintained now MPs are gathered back in Westminster.

Perhaps of more concern to the parliamentary leadership should be the fact that divisions in the party are not restricted to Brexit. I was sitting at one point next to an MP who expressed outright horror at the policies outlined in the main hall by John McDonnell. And whilst organisers were doubtless relieved that the issue of anti-Semitism did not figure as prominently as they feared it might, the issue still haunts the party. Several MPs have dropped hints that they will reconsider their futures once the battle over Brexit has been fought.

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Not, of course, that Labour is alone in being divided along several dimensions. Somewhat drowned out by the cacophony surrounding Brexit, there were signs that the Conservatives, too, have other fights to come, not least over Britain’s future once it has left the EU.

One fringe event, in particular, struck me as a precursor to the struggles to come. A room full largely of Brexiters took turns to declare that, when it comes to agriculture, Brexit should not mean an end to, inter alia: access to seasonal workers, generous subsidies and tariffs on foreign agricultural products. Strong support for the status quo ante, in other words – not exactly the thinking of those Conservative Brexit revolutionaries who see the referendum as a means to create a new, liberal, free-trading country.

Meanwhile, up in Glasgow, the SNP didn’t fight amongst itself over Brexit directly. This is not as obvious as it may seem. After all, 36 per cent of their voters backed Leave according to Lord Ashcroft. Indeed, I’ve long wondered why Nicola Sturgeon escaped the opprobrium heaped on Jeremy Corbyn, (37 per cent of Labour voters voted Leave) for failing to rally enough of his supporters to the Remain cause in 2016.

Be this as it may, that particular division was not visible at the conference. What was, however, was a palpable sense of frustration. Frustration, first, with London. I was booed for suggesting that what some Scots see as a naked and self-serving power grab by London during Brexit might be nothing more than the civil service attempting to limit the number of complications it has to deal with simultaneously.

Yet this was as nothing compared to the palpable irritation at the fact that the debate about Brexit seems to be getting in the way of the key issue – Indyref 2.  Senior party figures battled gamely to convince the faithful that of course they should be campaigning, but really, nothing can be done until we know the outcome of Brexit (and presumably until the polls show stronger support for independence).

For all the divisions and discord, the other salutary reminder provided by conference season relates to the nature of politics. First, these people are not representative of the population as a whole. Where else do you see a sea of Palestinian flags? When else does Birmingham host so many youngsters in blazers?

Moreover, it is tribal. Party members are not merely people separated by different political ideas, but different sorts of people. They dress differently, talk differently, see the world differently. Which is not to say that the parties will weather any storm – talk of splits in at Labour in Liverpool underlined that all too clearly – but it does serve to remind us of the real constraints in the way of the emergence of some new cross-party grouping.

So far, so interesting. Interesting, at least, to those who are interested in politics. Yet never forget the gulf between those who attend these political gatherings and the interest (or lack thereof) of the ordinary voter. Among this latter group, the conferences impinge only insofar as they are reported in the media. And here, it’s worth noting that the stage managers played their part well. For all the frenetic activity of the fringe, events in the main halls passed off pretty much as planned. Leaders were applauded, protests were avoided, and images of (relative) competence and unity were projected. So onwards towards an autumn of political discontents that will be near impossible to stage manage. Time for a lie down.

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London.

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