Labour already has an EU policy – and it’s not bad

by Denis MacShane and Hugo Dixon | 12.02.2018

The Labour Party’s 2016 conference kept open the possibility of staying in the EU and said there might need to be a referendum to approve Theresa May’s Brexit deal. This is official party policy. Why doesn’t Jeremy Corbyn stick to it? And why don’t the TV and radio presenters who interview the Labour leader and other bigwigs even appear to be aware of the policy?

The text approved in 2016 said that conference “recognises that many of those who voted to leave the EU were expressing dissatisfaction with the EU or national policy and were voting for change, but believe that unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained.” It went on to say: “The final settlement therefore should be subject to approval through Parliament and potentially through a general election or a referendum.”

Pro-Europeans won’t find this wording perfect. It only keeps open the option of fighting to stay in the EU if the final settlement isn’t acceptable. And a referendum on the final deal is only one of several options.

But it’s a text that can be built on. For example, since it’s now clear that our hapless prime minister won’t be able to negotiate a good deal, the logic of Labour’s official position is that it should now fight to stay in the EU. And, for a democratic party, it would surely be uncomfortable to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum with a parliamentary vote alone. Only a referendum or general election would do the trick.

It may be said that the 2016 Labour conference vote was a long time ago and what matters is what the shadow cabinet says now. But that’s not how Labour works. Decisions of the annual party conference settle policy and cannot be wished away by MPs right up to the leader himself – a point he used to make in his decades as a backbencher. What’s more, the only reason that the policy wasn’t updated at last year’s conference was because Corbynistas shamefully conspired to keep Brexit off the agenda, so afraid were they that party members would want an even more robustly pro-European policy.

So when Labour shadow cabinet members mouth meaningless waffle about the sort of Brexit deal they want – aping May and her cabinet – they are actually going against official policy. This doesn’t just go against internal party democracy. It is also against the party’s electoral interests.

A key test will be on May 3 when elections are held for all London boroughs, and for major cities and towns in England. EU citizens in the UK can vote and, as in June 2017, this will be a chance for anti-Brexit voters to take their revenge on May’s strategy of ignoring the half of the nation that did not endorse rupture with Europe. If Labour wants to win a famous victory, it will have to find warmer words that go beyond Corbyn’s current fence-sitting.

When the shadow cabinet meets next week to discuss how to play Brexit, it should consider how to build on the current official policy rather than ignore it.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “Labour already has an EU policy – and it’s not bad”

  • There is a silver lining to the Brexit cloud and it is that the Tories will be unelectable for 20 years. On a party political level it is preferred that the party that brought Brexit delivers the car crash. A tremendous amount of damage has already been done, so it may be better that the Labour Party is not found sitting behind the steering wheel.