1. FUDGE FACTORY
Ah, fudge. It’s temptingly sweet in small chunks, but everyone knows too much of it can either make you sick or rot your teeth in the long run. That maxim applies here in Liverpool, where Labour has crafted a cavity-threatening motion on a second Brexit referendum. But it also applies in London, where the Tory Cabinet gathers to discuss the PM’s Salzburg setback to her own Chequers confection.
It took five and a half hours and six versions, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer were both pleased with the new ‘composite’ motion hammered out just before midnight at the party conference. You can read the full wording in our report HERE, but the key line is “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”. The phrase ‘on the table’ is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that sentence and Remainers are split between those who see it as a step in the right direction and those upset that it didn’t commit explicitly to a referendum.
For anyone hope to see Labour’s leadership match the demands of its members (more than 85% of them back a ‘People’s Vote’), in end it was as much an anti-climax as the finale of Bodyguard (on which read our superb HuffPost summary HERE). Yet Labour compositing meetings are often about watering down tricky motions and avoiding delegates tying the hands of the Shadow Cabinet, or indeed Cabinet. And it could have been worse for Remainers, as the penultimate version of the motion talked only of ‘a public vote on the terms of Brexit’, ruling out the option of staying in the EU. I’m told a key moment last night came when the GMB union, which had kept quiet for four and a half hours in the meeting, offered the final, fudgy version that found a consensus.
The motion goes to the conference floor tomorrow, but the wording has ensured that it won’t be – to coin a phrase – a meaningful vote. And it’s worth reiterating that even if Parliament votes down May’s Brexit deal this autumn, the Government will not provide the Commons time or legislation needed for a second referendum. The only circumstances under which one could possibly happen is if it appears in a Labour manifesto for a general election. If the party were to include the option of staying in the EU, then all the chatter about a new political party (we have a BMG poll showing 58% would consider voting for one) may disappear. Moderate Tories and Lib Dems would be tempted to hold their nose about Corbyn’s leftwing politics and vote Labour simply to grasp at a last chance to stay in the EU. That may be yet another reason why no Tory PM would risk another general election before 2022.
But on the Today programme, John McDonnell seemed to go further than the carefully worked compromise of last night, offering a bittersweet fudge of his own. He declared Labour ‘will go for a People’s vote’ if May fails to offer a general election. Yes ‘will’. He then also suggested staying in the EU would not be on the ballot paper, only the terms of Brexit under a Labour government (Norway with some migration curbs?). There’s lots of questions this throws up. Why would a Labour government risk possible defeat in a referendum on its own version of Brexit? Why bother with a referendum and not simply put the terms of Brexit in a Labour manifesto? And if May has already ruled out another snap poll, won’t the whole EU-UK landscape have changed by the time of the 2022 election?
2. CANADA TRY
The Cabinet meets this morning (early as the PM has to fly to the UN General Assembly in New York) amid swirling speculation that some of its members will push a ‘Canada plus’ free trade deal as an alternative to May’s Chequers compromise. Jeremy Hunt didn’t rule one out at the weekend, yet it’s difficult to see how the PM would allow any early retreat on her plans having made such a defiant televised statement on Friday. Should her backbench Brexiteers remain continue to dig in, it’s possible that May could tweak the language in the political declaration on future UK-EU relations to sound as much Canada as Chequers (Cheqada, as Nick Clegg calls it).
As Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab pointed out on Marr yesterday, the real problem with a Canada-style trade deal is that the EU is still demanding that Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the UK. Raab said Canada was ‘off the table’ (tables are clearly the political must-have this season) given the Brussels ‘backstop plan’. Many of his Leaver colleagues however think that the way round this is having some kind of checks away from the Northern Ireland border. The Brexiteers have more of their alternative plans set out today by the Institute for Economic Affairs, which has 15 new options for the Irish question. It also urges May to pause her talks with Brussels and instead look for trade deals with the rest of the world.
But for now, May’s belief that she has the only workable plan should not be underestimated. It’s still possible to envisage a situation where she squeaks a Parliamentary majority by whittling down her backbench rebel numbers with the help of new, post-Chequers language in the political statement on EU-UK relations, with pleas to back her premiership and park some thornier stuff until we get over the line of March 29, 2019.
3. SHARING IS CARING
It’s Big Mac day at Labour conference as the Shadow Chancellor makes his big speech. John McDonnell has grabbed lots of overnight attention with his trail of plans to force big firms to transfer up to 10% of their shares to their workers. The CBI has already railed against it, dubbing it an ‘anti-business diktat’, the Tories say it amounts to a tax hike. Backers of the idea will argue it is an extension of the sensible John Lewis staff partnership model, rather than some kind of Marx (geddit?) & Spencer revolutionary socialism.
What’s most intriguing is the way McDonnell appears to have softened his own position over the years. The man who famously joked about ‘fermenting the overthrow of capitalism’ now likes to talk about workers becoming stakeholders and shareholders. John Harris in the Guardianrightly picks up on a line from the Statesman’s recent profile of McDonnell, in which a close colleague states: “He came out of a statist tradition, which he has come to see as elitist. He’s now interested in co-operatives, mutuals, in creating the conditions for people to run their own lives.”
This shift is in tune with the devolved, 21st century socialism of those attending Momentum’s The World Transformed events in Liverpool. What’s fascinating is that some in the Tory Government such as Greg Clark have been increasingly talking the language of mutuals and co-ops too. I wonder whether the Conservatives will attempt to outflank Labour by pushing harder on this agenda, while not scaring off business with talk of mandatory moves?
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McDonnell is bound to get big cheers today (watch for his trademark ending of his speech with a raised fist and the word ‘solidarity!’), but watch for the reception Angela Rayner gets this afternoon. The Shadow Education Secretary had her own radical policy offer overnight, scrapping the Free Schools programme and eventually bringing all academy schools back into a system where all schools “follow the same rules”. She is likely to announce something eyecatching on childcare too (don’t forget how frustrated she was by the last manifesto committing many billions more to scrapping student tuition fees than to helping under-5s).
With the rule change on a second female deputy leader expected to be confirmed this morning, Rayner will inevitably be asked whether she fancies the post. She wasn’t explicitly asked that question at the Guardian fringe, but did say working class women like her had long been told they weren’t ‘leadership material’. And as the party turns its thoughts to life after Jez, she is seen by many as a strong contender for the top job itself one day. In our own WaughZone fringe with Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth yesterday he gushed with praise when I asked who would make a good deputy. “Angela Rayner is great. Good friend of mine, working class woman. Trade unionist, former care worker. Angela Rayner is brilliant.”
Emily Thornberry can’t be ruled out of course either, but in any deputy race the Left seems of late to be moving away from Rebecca Long-Bailey and towards Dawn Butler. Butler will have won round some activists with her praise for Liverpool’s Militant council for standing up to Thatcher. Yet Ashworth was notably cool. “One of my old friends is from Liverpool and his mum worked for the local education authority and got one of those famous redundancy notices in a taxi…I think Dawn was making a broader point, but going back to the days of Militant, we shouldn’t be…We are not going back to those days of Militant and calling the Tory government’s bluff by making all our public sector employees redundant”.
Our WaughZone chat had much more of course (watch it in full HERE), not least Ashworth’s new announcement on alcohol safety teams in every NHS hospital. He also talked movingly about growing up with an alcoholic father, and his anger and sadness that his dad didn’t turn up to his son’s wedding because he was worried he would ‘embarrass’ him. He died three weeks later. In the 70th year of the NHS, it’s odd that the Shadow Health Secretary is relegated to the speaking slot before Corbyn’s big speech on Wednesday (guaranteeing anything he says will be blitzed by the leader). Yet he will focus on health inequalities on everything from alcoholism to addiction, mental health, obesity and sheer life expectancy.
5. SHAME GAME
The growing divide in Labour between some Momentum activists and some trade unions is the new dynamic that underlies many of the internal struggles at this party conference. It was on display all too obviously yesterday on the floor of the conference when one delegate yelled ‘shame on the trade unions!’ The past week’s NEC meetings have certainly sparked real unease among the unions. One insider told me in Liverpool: “These bro-socialists pitting union members against party members don’t understand solidarity, they are liberal individualists and don’t get collectivism is what were were founded on.” It’s the unions who have brought emergency motions on Grenfell, the car industry and the NHS.
Jon Ashworth was certainly irritated yesterday with the divisive tactics of some activists. “The trade unions founded the Labour party,” he said. On the key rule change on MP reselection, he pointed out “it does look like a diminishing of the influence of the trade unions.. a trade union does not have the ability to balance out branches like it used to have..In the interests of party unity, unions have agreed to give up some of their influence”. Conference just announced that it had voted by 65% to 34% for the new MPs reselection rule change.
Many Momentum activists wanted full, automatic reselection and will try to revisit it at some point in the future. But some in the party advise the Left to be ‘careful what you wish for’. The new rules mean that hard left MPs as much as centre right MPs could now lose their union protection and be ousted. A number of local parties were furious to have left candidates imposed on them in the emergency selections prior to the snap election. Watch this space. Meanwhile Labour MP Neil Coyle warned on Radio 4 last night ‘there will be more Frank Fields’ quitting the party to go independent if they are deselected.
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