On the eve of Labour Conference in Liverpool last year, the conventional wisdom said there was no chance the party would back a second Brexit referendum. I was one of around 200 members who endured a five-hour compositing meeting, just to ensure that a referendum was an ‘option on the table’. Twelve months on, Labour is not only committed to that referendum, the shadow chancellor, shadow foreign secretary and shadow Brexit secretary have all declared they will personally campaign to remain.
We have come a long way in the last year, but we’re not done yet.
At this year’s conference, Labour members have an opportunity to clear the final hurdle and secure a commitment that the party will campaign to Remain in all circumstances. Once more the conventional wisdom is that this won’t happen, that Jeremy Corbyn has decided that Labour will be neutral in a referendum and he simply won’t move any further. However, it is worth remembering that Jeremy Corbyn was very clear during his leadership campaign that it would be Labour members who make party policy. We are ready to demonstrate how this is done, by force of reasoned argument and a show of strength in Brighton.
It isn’t tenable for the Labour Party to fight the now inevitable General Election with a ‘neutral’ position on the issue that will define the election. If the Leader of the Opposition can’t express a preference for whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU, the campaign will be haunted by it. Imagine the spectre of a TV debate in which every other candidate can express their policy in one word (Leave or Remain) and the leader of the Labour Party cannot. It would be devastating.
Some might argue that the complexity of Brexit demands a more nuanced answer, but we have already seen how the current position unravels under scrutiny. Emily Thornberry is one of the party’s most effective spokespeople, but her recent appearance on Question Time demonstrated how impossible it is to convince people that there is merit in Labour renegotiating a Brexit deal, only to campaign against it.
Jeremy is right that the referendum should be a choice between a ‘credible Leave option’ and Remain, but that credible Leave option already exists – Theresa May’s withdrawal deal. The referendum choice should be simple, but also provide a definitive way to resolve Brexit – a deal approved by the EU, or the chance to Remain.
Not only we do have faith in our ability to win the argument, we know that for the second year in a row, almost all of the motions sent to conference by Labour CLPs share our objectives. Like last year, we’ll have a compositing meeting in which members from all across the country will be able to influence Labour policy, agreeing the text of a motion to be put to a vote on the conference floor. Some of these people will be ‘veterans’ of last year and all involved are a little older and a little wiser than we were in Liverpool.
Last year we made real progress, but the collective stamina of the group failed at the end – meaning that we secured many of the concessions we wanted, but not all. This time, the Labour members elected to represent their CLPs will be willing and able to stay in the compositing meeting for the whole night to ensure that Labour Party policy reflects the wishes of its members – an unequivocal commitment to campaign to Remain in the EU. It may well prove be a test of endurance, but Remain Labour supporters are prepared. We’re ready to change Labour policy and to prove the conventional wisdom wrong on Brexit once again.
Andrew Lewin is founder of Remain Labour