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Speak your wait machine
One of the most startling moments of last year’s Labour conference came when Keir Starmer triggered the ‘Remain roar’. After the shadow Brexit secretary uttered the forbidden R-word - “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option” - a low rumble rolled like a wave through the audience before bursting into a standing ovation and loud cheers.
Well, fast forward 12 months and the guttural noise from this conference hall tonight was not about Brexit. It was all about loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. And when Starmer’s pro-Remain motion was defeated by a show of hands, the renewed ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant felt more visceral than ever before.
There were angry shouts that NEC chair Wendy Nichols should have called for a ‘card vote’ to count detailed figures for union and local party delegates. There was chaos and confusion as Nichols herself appeared to say that she’d acted on the advice of general secretary and Corbyn ally Jennie Formby. There is muttering about rule changes passed on Friday night that ensured card votes were no longer automatic.
The more salient fact is that the conference had just minutes beforehand voted overwhelmingly for an NEC statement that Corbyn wanted passed. That statement delays until after the election any decision by Labour on taking sides in a new referendum. It will instead negotiate a new ‘soft Brexit’ deal with Brussels then hold a special party conference to determine which way it should campaign.
Today is undoubtedly a defeat for Starmer and Emily Thornberry, who had warned “we must strive day and night, whatever it takes, to keep Britain in the European Union”. Jo Swinson was delighted as it looked like Corbyn had sent a message to all those Labour voters who backed the Lib Dems in the Euro elections: stay with us, Corbyn will never back Remain.
Starmer said tonight that “it’s highly likely” the special conference will back Remain because “any polling of Labour Party members shows they are overwhelming in favour of Remain”.
But judging by the way the votes went today, it’s perfectly possible to conceive of a special Labour conference backing ‘his’ Brexit deal in government. You can imagine his supporters saying it would then be a confidence vote in him not just as Labour leader, but as PM.
Momentum proved once more that its organisational muscle, combined with union votes, can trump anything if it’s allied with the leadership. As a ‘machine’ operation, it was as weighty in delivering any loyalty test Blair or Brown had set themselves, and will be formidable next time too.
The real significance of today’s vote: trust in Corbyn is still so high among his rank and file that it’s not outlandish to think he could get Labour to actually back Leave in a referendum.
Perhaps the most significant quote of the entire week may turn out to be Corbyn’s reply to Andrew Marr on Sunday. When asked if he believed Britain would be better off inside the European Union or outside it, the Labour leader replied: “It depends on the agreement you have with the European Union outside.”
Campaigning for a deal you’ve worked hard to negotiate is certainly more logical than campaigning against it, as several Corbyn supporters made clear today. A key moment came when Unite’s assistant general secretary Howard Beckett (warming up as Len McCluskey’s successor-in-waiting) ridiculed Thornberry’s “car crash” Question Time trying to explain that illogicality to the general public.
More important than anything, however, was that constant plea for loyalty. One Corbyn supporter put it like this: “Back your leader..Jeremy..was right on Iraq, he was right on gay rights, he was right on privatisation and PFI and he’s right on our tactics and strategy around Brexit.” Add the powerful message that it was time to speak for “the 99%, not the 52% or 48%” and it was easy to see why the mood among undecided delegates shifted.
As Starmer himself put it today, “what a year it’s been”. Labour has indeed helped topple Theresa May thanks to its parliamentary guerrilla operation on Brexit. Starmer nudged the party a long way in 12 months and now it officially backs a second referendum.
But it’s that Corbyn belief in ‘moving on’ from Brexit that has bubbled to the surface too. He may be right that his tactic will allow Labour the space to focus now on Tory cuts and the kind of radical policies that John McDonnell announced today.
The counter case is that more than ever before, many people now identify themselves emotionally and politically as ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’. And they will get the chance to deliver their own roar very soon indeed.
We’ll find out in that snap election in a few weeks’ time whether Corbyn’s wait-and-see approach stretches to breaking point the patience of millions of Labour voters, not just members.
Quote Of The Day
“Can I just say this to you? This is our conference.”
Jeremy Corbyn lashes out at the “totally unacceptable” TV and press camera scrum around him on the conference stalls.
Monday Cheat Sheet
John McDonnell announced a Labour government would move the UK to a 32-hour working week within a decade. An increase in statutory annual leave for workers, plus negotiated deals between unions and managers would deliver the target.
McDonnell also announced a plan for “Universal Basic Services” to expand public services free at the point of use including childcare, post-school education, public transport for under-25s and school meals. Culture and recreation would also be included in the package. Personal social care will be made free for all, at a cost of £6bn a year.
The Supreme Court announced it would make its ruling on the prorogation of parliament on Tuesday at 10.30am.
Boris Johnson went public for the first time on key UK intelligence on Iran, saying there was a “very high degree of probability” Teheran was responsible for recent drone attacks on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia.
Johnson refused six times to answer questions from journalists on his plane to New York, when asked about his relationship with young businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri. She was given a privileged place on his overseas trade trips when London mayor and £126,000 in public money. He later told SkyNews: “Everything was done with complete propriety.”
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