What Labour’s Brexit motion means in practice

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

As Labour delegates gathered in Liverpool, it was impossible to avoid mentions of Brexit. There are 25 separate fringe meetings listed on the conference agenda and there are certain to be more meetings arranged on the fly.

The challenge Labour faces, whether at conference or immediately afterwards, is that it is simply impossible to satisfy all the strands of opinion among members and Labour-leaning voters. While the party’s position has been made clear on some policies (with rail renationalisation an obvious example), Brexit is one of those areas where it is all a bit vague.

This has not necessarily been a problem to date. With doubt surrounding the government’s Chequers proposal, it would be difficult to have a hard and fast position that is not total opposition or total support. Of course Labour can do neither. It has instead drawn up a list of six tests it says the final deal must pass in order to be acceptable. But these are carefully drafted to be general enough not to frighten the horses.

But conferences have a habit of throwing a spotlight on what is missing on party platforms, and there has been a build up of pressure on Labour to be more precise and to commit to a stronger statement of opposition.

Ahead of conference, more than 100 motions on Brexit had been proposed for debate. Under Labour’s processes, this meant a lot of stitching together and compromising had to happen to produce one motion to put to a vote at conference. Late on Sunday night the wording emerged ready for a debate on the Tuesday (September 25).

The words agreed won’t please everybody. But they do move Labour in the direction of supporting a people’s vote – a referendum on the final Brexit deal. The key phrase, which campaigners will fix on is “if we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”

This immediately raises two questions. First, how likely is another early general election? It is good campaigning fare for Labour to keep calling for it, but under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) there either has to be a large House of Commons vote in favour (which is what happened last time) or a successful motion of no confidence in the government, which is not then reversed by a second vote. At the moment there is no parliamentary arithmetic showing such a vote can be won. An early election is simply not in the interests of either the Conservatives or the DUP, so crucial votes are not available to make it happen.

The second question is about the logistics of another referendum. The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29 2019. Referendums don’t just happen. Parliament has to agree to one, the wording has to be sorted out, there have to be official campaigns designated, expense limits need to be agreed and there has to be a campaign period. Some argue that there simply isn’t time. However the roadmap published by the People’s Vote campaign argues that the logistics can work. The Article 50 letter can be withdrawn, the campaign argues, to make this possible.

The motion also includes the line “conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the single market”. Shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer had in fact already highlighted this aspiration by proposing in 2017 a lengthy transition period with single market membership. This could also be a reference to future membership of the European Economic Area, something that is controversial in Labour circles.

The question of a question

This is only part of the story for Labour however. There is ambiguity among anti-Brexit campaigners (or pro-second vote campaigners) both inside and outside the party about what form of words a public vote would use.

Some believe it should offer the option of remaining in the EU. Others say it should simply be about accepting the government’s deal or not. It is not even clear if it would be a binary choice. Some, including the Conservative’s Justine Greening, are advocating a three choice ballot, which would presumably offer the choice of accepting the deal, rejecting it and remaining in the EU or rejecting it and leaving without a deal. (A linked problem arises here over the form of vote. A first past the post approach to the three options would cause an almightly row.) Of course some of this ambiguity is deliberate. Campaigns wanting to establish the principle of something need to avoid too many early details as that usually derails momentum.

The task for Labour, as an opposition party wanting to get into government, is to adopt a position which is clearer than it has been while not offering up hostages to fortune by being overly specific. The position also needs to be maintainable during those tense weeks between the return of parliament on October 9 and the vote on the government’s deal. No small task.The Conversation

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What my students saw when I took them to the Labour party conference

My students meet shadow education minister Angela Rayner. Author provided

As a political activist, I am used to conferences. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that fresh eyes are changing British politics. I took a group of second and third year students to the Labour conference in Liverpool this year and asked them afterwards what stood out to them.

We went along on the day the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, delivered his speech about the importance of winning elections.

It was also the day Labour was embroiled in a ferocious row about the arcane rules of its National Executive Committee. It was noted on the floor that rarely do procedural votes attract so much attention, but for a party as divided as Labour at the moment, the composition of its ruling body is a pressing matter.

For these students, our trip was a first glimpse at the kind of idiosyncrasies on display at a party conference. Here’s what they spotted on the ground.

Multi-tasking speakers

Media coverage before the conference suggested there were fears of violence and intimidation. There were reports that party staff were being briefed about how to handle bad behaviour. But we saw nothing like that. Security was in fact very light in Liverpool.

Nevertheless, my students noted that MPs rarely walk alone – but probably for different reasons. At least one accompanying aide is required at all times, preferably more. They should all look frightfully busy.

Lisa Nandy must possess roller skates, given the number of simultaneous meetings she seemed to be speaking at. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee must have a pair, too. She seemed to speak at more fringe events than anyone. Owen Jones also seems very popular. We didn’t spot Owen Smith at all.

And while there may not have been huge demand to see MP Duncan Enright speak, the impending by-election in Witney made a high-profile appearance inevitable. You can guarantee your candidate will get a chance to speak at conference if he is about to take on a Tory – and as Enright is fighting to replace David Cameron, he got pretty high billing.

Debating

Watching conferences on TV is fine but it only gives you half the story. We visited the conference hall while debates were going on – a central part of the event that is not often seen by the world outside as mainstream broadcasters have a habit of “cutting away” for more chat with commentators.

Delegates know what topics are being debated well in advance. The actual text of the motions, however, is very last minute (in technical terms, it is the result of compositing earlier at conference). This makes it hard for anyone to focus in detail on a particular line but easier for people to make general speeches. Labour conference is not, as a result, particularly pedant friendly.

“Debates” are short. In one session there were only five speakers. People used to attending other conferences, like the Lib Dems’, where a debate can go on for 90 minutes and include one-minute interventions as well as three-minute speeches, would be amazed.

Conference hall proceedings sometimes get delayed by “points of order”. Frustrating for journalists and fringe meeting organisers but evidence that members do still have some power to interrupt with objections. I hope my students don’t adopt this tactic though.

When debating rule or constitutional changes, there will always be a speaker who complains that time spent on the debate is time not spent “taking the fight to the Tories”. That speaker is of course himself adding to the length of the debate.

It is noticeable at conference this year how many speakers said they were first-time delegates when addressing the room. Is this, perhaps, a sign of the changes in the party?

Fringe benefits

The very many fringe meetings going on in parallel to the main debates are a great way to hear more and explore ideas. At these sessions, you can often hear from quite high-profile people on discussion panels, and you can generally look around the packed (generally tiny) room to see an MP or shadow minister watching with you.

Discussion can get quite heated at these sessions and there is a certain type of delegate for whom the phrase “short question” translates as “long analysis of history”. Chairs of fringe meetings need to find ways to become more ruthless. Anyone remember the gunk tank?

Good doggy

Every party conference features a large exhibition and significant competition for the best stall. There are free gifts galore from think tanks, unions and campaign groups. I am not sure why they bothered at Labour this year, though. The clear winner was the guide dog area, complete with an exercise course, toys and a dog to meet. Sorry Falklands stand, Rover gets my vote.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.