There’s still some confusion about what happened on Brexit at the Labour party conference in Liverpool and what it means.
Northern Umbrella’s take on it is that it was a serious step forward towards getting a new referendum on Brexit, albeit one which was deliberately obscured by a masterful piece of political spinning by John McDonnell and Len McCluskey. However, the overall situation remains extremely grave. We are still on the Titanic, and we have to change course or we hit the iceberg. More on that in the final section of this piece. But first the good news.
March for the Many
The People’s Vote March for the Many was a great success. There was an excellent turnout, the weather was kind, and an impressively long and colourful column of marchers wended its way through town from St Georges Hall to the Pier Head, for a well-organised rally in front of the Liver Building.
The great British class divide of an anti-Brexit march was much in evidence, with the majority of marchers looking vaguely liberal and middle class. But they cared enough to turn out, so no sniping please. Probably nobody knows better than Jeremy Corbyn how hard it is to get that many people onto the streets for a march. If so many people do come out, it means something.
In the speeches, Tim Roache, the General Secretary of GMB union led off with really good, straightforward common sense, whilst Tottenham MP David Lammy staked his claim to be the leading spokesperson for Labour remainers. Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson made the point that back in the 1980s/90s EU regeneration money saved the city of Liverpool, when the British Government had written the place off. Liverpool had not forgotten, and in the referendum, had voted remain.
A highlight of the speeches was Everton and England football legend Peter Reid who, speaking in perhaps the ultimate Scouse accent, made some excellent points and cracked some good jokes. Looking out over the sea of EU flags in the crowd, he signed off with “I have to go to Goodison for the game now, and all I can say is, keep the blue flag flying here!”
Options on the table
Meanwhile, at the conference hall, the march was complemented by some seriously awesome politicking by Another Europe is Possible. They are a group of young Labour party activists who worked incredibly hard all summer to ensure a new Brexit referendum was the key debate at Liverpool. They achieved this by getting 150 constituency Labour parties to submit motions on Brexit. They then worked their socks off at the actual conference – including at the gruelling 5 hour ‘compositing’ meeting on Sunday afternoon – to ensure that a satisfactorily worded motion was put and carried. Here is their account of what happened.
In short, the final motion as passed calls on Labour MPs to vote down the Government’s proposed Brexit deal if it fails to meet “the six tests” (of which the key one is “the exact same benefits as EU membership”, which were David Davis’s promise). If this happens, Labour will try to bring down the Government and get a general election. If it fails to get a general election, then in the words of the motion: “Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.” As Keir Starmer said in his conference speech, that means that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option”. For that, he got a standing ovation.
The context to that outpouring of delight was that on the Sunday and the Monday, both Len McCluskey and John McDonnell had said that for Labour to support a referendum, the question would need to be restricted to a yes/no on the Government’s Brexit deal, a totally absurd position which would imply Labour calling on the people to vote for crashing out without a deal, if they had previously voted the deal down in parliament.
It’s possible that John McDonnell and Len McCluskey were confused or badly briefed – after all, they were both having a superhumanly busy time. But far more likely is that they were deliberately pursuing a policy of “creative ambiguity”, sending a message to Labour-supporting Leave voters that they were still on their side.
It is thought that over 80% of Labour party members now support a new referendum, and of those almost all will want remain to be an option on the ballot paper. But McDonnell and McCluskey know that, amongst their target voters in their target seats for the next general election, the numbers look nothing like that. Later on Monday, McDonnell clarified that his earlier comments were mistaken. But the retraction got a lot less coverage than the initial statement, and the “mistaken” statement had already done its work on the target voters.
Love Corbyn Hate Brexit
As well as working hard on the conference motion, Another Europe is Possible did a fabulous job of political messaging and sloganeering. Their two slogans, captured on placards, tote bags and teeshirts were “Stop Tory Brexit” and “Love Corbyn Hate Brexit”. Both contained very important messages.
“Love Corbyn Hate Brexit” sounds corny, but it did the vital task of distancing the anti-Brexit movement in Labour from the worst of the deranged Corbyn-haters of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Somehow the slogan sums up the generation of young people who have joined the Labour party and completely revitalised it. It probably did Alastair Campbell’s blood pressure no good either.
They also took on the myths of ‘Lexit’ (left wing Brexit). Jeremy Corbyn is nothing if not the child of the Bennite Labour left of the 1970s and 80s. The Bennites were the original ‘Lexiters’: impeccable internationalists, but always against EU membership, with principled objections to the EU “bosses’ club” and the giving up of absolute national sovereignty that EU membership required. They voted against it in 1975 and famously put withdrawal from Europe (as Brexit it was then known) into the 1983 Labour election manifesto. Although they are in a small minority, there are still Lexiters amongst the Labour party activists. They were in evidence in Liverpool, especially at the Momentum fringe conference/political festival The World Transformed.
As a slogan “Stop Tory Brexit” makes the crucial point that left wing Brexit is not on the table. As Ann Pettifor said at the Pier Head and at The World Transformed, the only Brexit on offer is one which will make us all vassals of Wall Street and Donald Trump. Ann Pettifor claimed her credentials as a former Lexiter, and then argued that any true leftie should analyse the situation and conclude that remain is the correct option in the circumstances: “when the facts change, I change my mind”. This is almost certainly Jeremy Corbyn’s position.
So, altogether a great job done by Another Europe is Possible. They’re a great bunch of folks: let’s hope they are the future of the Labour party. And when the annals are written, they deserve their place on the honour roll of those who stopped Brexit, or died tryin’.
But now for the Titanic struggle
Despite the real progress on stopping Brexit in Liverpool, Northern Umbrella could not leave Liverpool feeling entirely happy. Being in Liverpool felt like being on the Titanic.
Yes, Labour had a very successful conference and had done what many would have thought impossible under the Corbynistas: look like a party preparing seriously to win a general election and enter government. But it was this very focus on a general election and preparing for power that created the uneasy feeling.
Because at the moment the issue is not the next general election, it is 29 March 2019, Brexit Day. 29 March 2019 is a big bloody iceberg and it will sink this country unless we change course and avoid it. And it is coming up very fast indeed. There may still be time to time to avoid it, but there is certainly no time to waste.
The lesson of the Titanic, and of the whole first half of the 20th century, is that however permanent and unsinkable your way of life, and your whole civilisation, appears, in fact it can suddenly end frighteningly fast. And then you find out that being alone in the North Atlantic is a very cold place indeed.
Regenerated Liverpool is a city transformed from what it was 25 years ago. As somebody once said about Sheffield, it’s a rich city awash with cash – once a week, on Saturday night. The revellers of all ages tottering about between the ritzy bars and nightspots of the city centre seemed to resemble nothing more than the passengers in the first class saloons and ballrooms of the Titanic.
Apparently carefree, it seems unthinkable that the party could end. It’s not their job to look out for icebergs ahead, and they are certainly not doing it. But in fact the whole vessel of the Liverpool economy is highly brittle and there aren’t enough lifeboats.
The World Transformed in its converted factory at Hinterlands felt like a political meeting being held down below decks in steerage class. Earnest agitators railing against the iniquities of the capitalist system, coming up with academic analyses and long term plans to bring justice to the world. Which is all worthy and valid in its way, but it just would be more useful at the moment to be on the bow shouting “iceberg ahead!”
If the Labour left and Momentum do not focus on avoiding 29 March 2019, then the next general election won’t be worth winning. Crash out Brexit won’t just be about empty shelves at the supermarket in the days after 29 March. It will also be about the financial crash and economic slump the initial shock will provoke.
When the ship sinks, ship’s lieutenant Dominic Raab will be first to lock the gates on the exits from the lower decks, grab a baby and push people out of the way to bag one of the limited places in the lifeboats. Dominic Raab has apparently already sold all his pounds and put his personal savings into gold. A little mini-me of the serious disaster capitalists like George Osborne’s BlackRock, who in a year’s time will be buying your repossessed house from the bank so they can rent it back to you.
The Titanic analogy isn’t exact. Unlike Theresa May, the captain of the Titanic wasn’t a rigid robot unswervingly obsessed and detached from reality. He didn’t have a crew half-composed of pirates actually working for some shadowy pirate-king on Grand Cayman, like Theresa May does with Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, and the rest. He didn’t have a discharged officer like Boris Johnson swilling around the ship’s bridge waving a bottle of rum.
And, hopefully, he didn’t have a complement of passengers who have spotted the iceberg, understand the danger it poses, and are willing to seize control of the wheel to steer clear at the last minute. That’s what we are going to have to do in the next few months.
It’s a Titanic job – who’s in?