Harold Wilson Photo: REX FEATURES
Before yesterday’s Labour conference vote on Brexit, Michael Chessum of Another Europe Is Possible, warned that it would “look awful” if Corbyn won as a result of the union bloc vote and/or by turning the issue of Labour’s Brexit stance into a loyalty test:
Ninety percent of motions to this conference are anti Brexit, reflecting a membership which is overwhelmingly pro remain. We are taking a remain position to conference floor, where we are expecting a close vote. Using union bloc votes to defeat the overwhelming majority of members may well not work, and would look awful.
There will be an attempt to turn this into a loyalty test. But those proposing these motions are by and large people, like me, who have spent years fighting for the left inside Labour and backing Corbyn. We want a radical Labour government, and Corbyn in Number 10. The best way of getting there is with clarity on Brexit and a clear message to our members and voters that we are on their side.
In the event, Chessum’s warning more or less came to pass: composite 13 (calling for a clear Remain stance) was defeated amid chaotic scenes and ineptitude on the part of the chair Wendy Nichols. She initially declared composite 13 carried, only to then tell the room that the party’s General Secretary Jennie Formby, who was sitting next to her, thought it had gone the other way. But it was narrow enough for many delegates to call for a card vote – which is when votes are counted properly, rather than the chair deciding if a show of hands has gone overwhelmingly one way or the other.
In a vote as close and contentious as this one, it is usual practice to hold a card vote. Paradoxically, it may well have resulted in a clearer defeat of composite 13, as the union block votes would have been counted in full – but, crucially, it would almost certainly have shown that constituency delegates clearly backed the composite, which was only defeated because of GMB and Unite, neither of which have a mandate from their members to (in effect) support Brexit.
Corbyn and his people will be relieved at the result. They turned this vote into more of a matter of confidence in Corbyn’s leadership than one on the issue itself. When the NEC “neutrality” motion (reminiscent of Harold Wilson’s 1975 stance on exactly the same issue) passed, his loyalists burst into ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ – but whereas in the past this was a mark of radical enthusiasm for a “new” kind of politics, now it has became the tiresome, boorish braying of blind loyalists, pro-Brexit lumpens and the worst kind of Stalinist and semi-Stalinist hacks. Speaker after speaker banged on about how much faith they had in Corbyn’s leadership.
Unite, GMB and Momentum backed the leadership line on Brexit, whereas Unison came out on Monday morning in favour of the ‘Remain now’ stance – together with the smaller Musicians’ Union and TSSA.
Jon Lansman of Momentum publicly criticised the undemocratic way the NEC motion had been drawn up and advised delegates to “vote with their conscience”. However, Momentum’s national coordinating group took it upon themselves (without any mandate from Momentum’s membership)to lobby delegates against the Remain motion.
Michael Chessum told LabourList:
Labour members, 90% of whom want to stay in the EU, will be deeply disappointed with this decision.
It is possible that the Remain motion had a majority in the CLPs, but because there was no card vote we will never know.
Brexit is a project of the Tory hard right. It is about attacking workers, downgrading migrants rights and shifting politics to the nationalist right. Labour beating the Tories is the only path to stopping this project, and it is not to late for Labour to make clear that that it opposes Brexit outright.
Though it is not the policy we supported, the calling of a special conference to democratically decide Labour’s Brexit policy was a concession which we won. But a fudge is not a unity position. It is deeply divisive among members, and risks losing a large chunk of our voter base.
This vote was set up as a loyalty test, but those grassroots activists who ran the campaign – Momentum activists, people who have fought for the left in Labour for years, know this is a nonsense. We have come so far in pushing Labour’s position towards a public vote, and while we might all be disappointed by this outcome, we must now prepare for the election. If Labour loses, the consequences will be dire.
All of us here as Shiraz would echo those sentiments. But one thing is for sure: this bureaucratic stitch-up marks the end of ‘Corbynism’ as an idealistic, radical grassroots movement. Underneath it all, Corbyn and his people have shown themselves to be bureaucratic control freaks, manipulators and triangulators, using the methods of Tony Blair to achieve a policy based upon that of Harold Wilson in 1975.
- Postscript from a well informed source:
Labour’s leadership may have failed in the “drive by shooting” of Tom Watson (using his colourful words) but they have totally stitched up NEC and conference Brexit votes – by making sure their supporters were largely in the room, and keeping out those pesky Remainers.
None of this should come as a surprise. But it was still awe-inspiring to watch in action.
The point is that for the past 24 hours, all the attention has been on which way the big unions would vote.
And when Unison turned against Corbyn’s Brexit neutrality it looked as if the Remainers might just squeak a victory. But in the end the unions’ position was irrelevant.
Because the conference votes were done by a show of hands. And guess what? There just weren’t many Remainers on the conference floor.
I wonder how that happened?
It’s a bit like how two crucial 8am NEC meetings were cancelled and requests for emailed submissions on the Brexit policy were made at around midnight on the prior evenings, making it almost impossible for Corbyn’s critics to get their act together.
The Brexit position of the trade unions was always a red herring, what magicians call misdirection. What mattered was who was in the hall.
And that was sorted weeks ago though the choice of delegates.
For spectators like me – who spent 15 years observing the tactics of China’s leaders – all this is quite familiar.
For passionate Labour Remainers, it’s infuriating.
- Update 20.05:
Just to explain in more detail the preceding points, a senior member of the shadow cabinet told me days ago that constituency Labour Party delegate selection had been organised to favour Corbyn loyalists.
About half those present were trade union delegates, who were thought to narrowly favour Corbyn’s Brexit ambivalence.
And immediately before the vote a delegate made a point of order from the platform alleging there were many in the conference room not entitled to vote – which was a suggestion she thought the vote was not being conducted in a robustly fair way.
Also there were lots of shouts at the end for a card vote, to verify the result via a formal counting process – which showed not everyone present thought the results accurately captured the view of Labour members.
All that said, Jeremy Corbyn won handsomely, which his allies told me he would over the preceding hours.
You can admire or criticise the professionalism of the operation to secure the win.
And of course I regret and apologise for my comparison with China which I thought was a joke but has caused unnecessary offence.