At the Labour party conference in Brighton spirits were high and the party was unified, members seemed to be basking in the post-election honeymoon.
The majority of the public and media attention was focused on this harmony, and post-conference analysis tried to illuminate the ramifications of a reinvigorated Labour Party. However, this attention has served to conceal at what costs this unity had been achieved.
The negotiation deadline for Brexit is March 2019, time is running short for Britain to secure itself a safe and prosperous passage through the thorny negotiations. However, judging from the Labour party conference you could be forgiven for believing Labour weren't quite aware of the immediacy of the issue, or whether it was happening at all. Resulting from the member’s ballot, the eight motions to be debated at the conference did not include Brexit.
This oversight can seem at first puzzling. Brexit is important. The range of potential outcomes from Brexit is vast, and the differences in these outcomes are extremely important for us Britons. Practically, it will determine our relationship with EU states, our relationship with non-EU states, it will determine food safety, environmental laws, specifics of our human rights may change, tourism, immigration, food, art, universities, the fabric of Britain changes along the lines of the different outcomes. Beyond this, and more speculatively, Brexit and how we approach it will also shape our national identity for decades to come.
The oversight only become less puzzling when considered strategically, from the Labour Party’s point of view. Brexit is a divisive topic, and one that as a country we are struggling to find reasonable ways to discuss. It splits people along lines that party logic is not used to. This means debating the issue, and even tentatively presenting a party line is very treacherous waters. All policy decisions represent attempts to solve difficult problems. Uniquely, however, a Brexit party line has the unavoidable consequences of alienating significant Labour MPs, party members, and general voters who all have strong convictions on the issue.
These difficulties are only exaggerated by the ugly sight of a Conservative Party making negative headlines for their public divisions on Brexit. Not only do Labour not want this to happen to their current post-election honeymoon, but there is a growing belief that given enough time the Conservative’s will collapse under the weight of their Brexit divisions, leaving Labour to stroll into power.
Avoiding a thorny discussion in exchange for party unity? It seems like a no-brainer.
That this strategy has taken hold of the Labour Party is best exemplified by Momentum’s move to advise members not to vote for motions on Brexit to avoid highlighting conflict between Jeremy Corbyn and the party at large (which was a crucial factor in keeping Brexit of conference timetable).
Although motivated on the surface by good reasons, this head-in-sand ignoring of the Brexit debate is irresponsible to those Labour is there to represent.
The strategic logic guiding the Labour Party fails to account for the fact that without Labour helping define the Brexit debate left-leaning politics and the interests of working people (and anyone else Labour are there to represent) will be completely ignored in the Brexit negotiations. Which in turn means being ignored in the most significant event in British politics for decades.
The Conservatives are able to define what options Britain has to choose from, able to dictate the nature of the negotiations, in control of changing the fabric of Britain. Not merely because they are in power, but because they are the ones publicly proposing ideas about Brexit, publicly forming a party policy. Although they disagree largely, which is what captures headlines, what is crucial for those on the left to remember is that as a party they also largely agree. They are a right-leaning, free-market, deregulation party, and if the only voices on Brexit are Tory voices this is the kind of Brexit we will get.
Working people need a Labour party that is strong enough to tackle its own internal division — brave enough to do so — so that it can offer a strong alternative to a Tory Brexit. There are of course huge disagreements (as there are with the Conservatives) within the party, but there must be some common ground found so as to provide another voice in the debate. Avoiding the issue should not be an option.
This is not necessarily bringing to the table a complete and consistent vision of Brexit, but providing alternative ways of understanding the issues at hand. Labour, by being more public on the Brexit they would like to see, can influence the debate by giving voice to concerns that are being ignored by the Conservative visions. Labour need to re-focus on workers rights, on what cooperation with Europe is necessary, on protection of human rights, on stopping the increase of deregulation and free-marketeering, etc.
This is less outlandish that it might first appear. The Conservatives, as mentioned, are unable to come to agreements on the exact nature of our exit from the EU, and the public infighting makes them weak on the issue. This is combined with there being a national appetite for cooperation on Brexit, two-thirds of Britons want other parties included in the negotiations. This opens the door for Labour to do what I am saying, by force of will influence the debate.
Reflecting on this, we see there was a spectre at the feast in Brighton, one that Labour were keen to ignore. Labour’s true strength can only be judged by their ability to come together and collectively help define Brexit. This, by extension, is also a real test for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. We should take note of something J.K Galbraith said: great leaders show a “willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership”. I have written before about my views on Jeremy Corbyn’s weak leadership, and this opinion will not change unless Jeremy Corbyn addresses our major anxiety.