What has conference revealed about Labour’s position on Brexit?
While this conference has been a particularly subdued affair, a number of issues do keep surfacing from fringe to fringe. The issue of Brexit – and particularly what Labour’s response to it should be – came up again and again in the smaller fringe meeting rooms away from the main conference hall.
In contrast, the Brexit action in the main conference hall represented slim pickings. The only real exception to this was conference passing a motion to call for a second referendum on the future Brexit deal, once secured. This was a position put forward by Owen Smith in his leadership campaign and widely criticised.
There is a wide spectrum of attitudes towards Brexit in the Labour Party. The official leadership view – not unlike Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning during the EU referendum itself – appears to be a non-committal shrug. A group that accepts something is happening to an institution they didn’t particularly cherish and don’t want to expend too much thought on it.
Others in the party are much more keen to hang on to Britain’s relationship with the EU and seem to be seeking ways to reverse the referendum vote. This feels to be broadly the grassroots view – with various fringes seeing delegates call for new referendums or spectacularly watered down blueprints for the final Brexit scenario. There is a touch of denial about this approach and it’s clear many of the party grassroots have not yet crossed the intellectual Rubicon to enable them to engage seriously with what Brexit might mean for them.
The final group – led by some of the party’s more visible moderate MPs – made that crossing quite soon after the referendum and are already turning their energies to shaping the final outcome of the Brexit vote. Most notable of these has been Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East, who has been one of the leading voices in urging Labour to accept the result and focus its efforts on influencing the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
This is an important journey for many of the Labour Party and is going to be critical to how they reconnect with working class voters, who have grown disillusioned by the metropolitan liberal look and feel of much of the party’s leadership. Writing in a recent Fabians publication, Ms Reynolds set out:
“Leaving the EU is a bitter pill for a pro-European to swallow, but as democrats we have a moral duty to respect the result of the referendum. It would be wrong to ignore it and would further corrode the trust that Labour has already lost with many working-class voters.”
Along with fellow MPs Rachel Reeves and Stephen Kinnock, she also called for an end to free movement of people within the EU in response to voters’ concerns. For many in the Labour Party, this will be a difficult position to embrace seeing how critical discussions around free movement were seen to be in the Remain campaign.
But for this group of MPs, it’s clear that they feel that they have lost some of that connection with their core vote, and now need to ensure they both listen to and then respond to these concerns. Over 62% of people in Wolverhampton voted to leave the EU in June. How Labour responds to these people’s concerns will say much about its chances in future elections.