Five Minutes on Labour’s Brexit Motion
I want to not but I can’t. (Updated.)
After a long and no doubt intense meeting, Labour’s compositors composited a motion on Brexit for the conference to vote on tomorrow. It’s a cat’s breakfast, an absolute fruit salad, and possibly also a mare’s nest. Steve Bullock points out that it also contains some good stuff, but I’m not sure how much that matters. When I first read it this morning, I thought it was a fudge —
I read the motion at 3:55am after a nightmare about a ghost. The ghost didn’t do anything, and I thought at the time that very much the same thing could be said of the motion. I think now that I was wrong, and I think Steve Bullock may be wrong too at the practical level, though his actual analysis of the text is vastly more informed and sensible than mine. But in terms of Labour’s internal politics, the situation may be worse than I thought.
Here’s the problem:
I think the important bits may not be what the motion says, but what it doesn’t say and how it says what it actually does say. (I’m aware that this is becoming decidedly Yes, Prime Minister. Stay with me.)
What the motion doesn’t say is that Labour will support a People’s Vote. It says that a vote is an option if Labour doesn’t secure a General Election. As Anna Soubry said this morning, it is vanishingly unlikely that Conservative MPs will back a General Election at this fraught moment. A People’s Vote, on the other hand, is plausible.
The motion also does not say that Labour policy is membership of the single market. It says Labour wants “full participation” in the single market, which is in real terms the same thing if it means anything at all, but it theoretically includes a sweetheart deal where a Labour government gets full access to the Single Market but doesn’t have to accept Freedeom of Movement. That such a deal won’t be forthcoming makes the distinction moot, but not insignificant. Labour policy still isn’t Single Market membership.
Labour will, as always, vote against any deal which doesn’t meet the Six Tests. The Six Tests — especially 2 — are in real terms unmeetable, but Labour is not committed to voting against all deals, only deals which do not meet the Six Tests.
And so on and so forth. Which allows John McDonnell to come out this morning and say this:
Essentially the motion is a carte blanche. It allows Labour’s leadership to continue its non-committal posture, but in doing so it relies on a series of shiningly impossible notional solutions. That would be fine if we had more time. It could even be fine if there’s a General Election and a Labour win, because an incoming government could legitimately ask for an A50 extension to secure a different outcome to the Brexit talks, which would then reveal that the unicorn deals do not exist for Labour any more than they exist for May’s benighted Tories. What it leaves open, however, is the possibility of no election, no extension, and no actual or parliamentary time to hold a People’s Vote. More depressingly, it also looks as if Labour’s renewed commitment to internal party democracy comes with the caveat “only on issues where the membership is supportive of the Leadership’s position”.
I’ve always wanted Remain. There are multiple sensible arguments for that, but for me I realise it comes down to an issue of identity. I have believed for my whole life that “home” could be anywhere between the west coast of Ireland and the eastern edge of Greece, and that if you wanted to be somewhere in that range you just went and learned the language and boom. I was raised that way - by accident, I think - and it stuck. That’s not to say you couldn’t make a home outside that range, as many in my family have, just that that was the default. To me, at this moment, it seems obvious that if we must leave the EU, we should go into an EEA/EFTA relationship from which we can either negotiate a sensible deal over a sensible period of time, or return to full EU membership. That is anathema to the Brexit lobby, of course, because in the first place it puts us in a rule-taking position and in the second place the extremely likelihood is that we will end up back in the EU because that’s what people will choose. That self-identified guardians of the will of the people find this problematic is indicative of their understanding of democracy.
The Labour motion is a fudge. It commits Labour to some good things if you dig down into it, but conceals those commitments to the point where they can be ignored: they are distinguishable only by analysis and by layers of cause and consequence which mitigate against concrete action. And that is a shame, because Labour is supposed to be Britain’s hope, not just another flavour of bullshit.