Column / Brexit Briefing
Post-Brexit party games
By Benjamin Fox
Unless you are a diehard Jeremy Corbyn supporter, Brexit is the dominant theme of this year’s party conference scene, the annual jamboree for politicians, activists, and hacks.
The Tory conference in Birmingham next week will be triumphalist. Most of the party’s supporters got the referendum result they wanted, and can look forward to the prospect of a long, uninterrupted period in power.
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If the Liberal Democrats’ gathering in Brighton was low-key, Labour's annual bash in Liverpool this week was a curious mixture of triumph and despair.
Corbyn was re-elected as party leader on Saturday (24 September), slightly increasing his mandate with a 62-38 percent victory over rival candidate Owen Smith. The wide margin of victory was expected, but it confirms that Labour has made a clear shift to the left.
Smith also tacked to the left in his campaign, focusing on Corbyn’s competence (or lack thereof) as a leader, while agreeing with Corbyn’s main policies, particularly on the economy.
Pitching himself as a ‘Corbyn-lite’ candidate was a tactical blunder, but the fact Smith felt he had to accept Corbyn’s agenda demonstrates how the mood in the Labour party has changed. Tony Blair's name is the dirtiest word in Labour politics, less than a decade after he was prime minister.
Corbyn has a very strong base of support - party membership has swelled from 200,000 to nearly 600,000 in the past 12 months - but there is little evidence that his popularity among activists is replicated in the country at large.
Opinion polls put Labour at least 10 percent behind the Conservatives, who can hardly suppress their glee at the prospect of facing Corbyn in an election.
Despite calls for unity from Corbyn, it is very unlikely that the majority of Labour MPs will publicly back his leadership three months after 80 percent of them passed a vote of no confidence against him.
It is worth remembering that the trigger for the leadership challenge was Corbyn’s lacklustre performance in the referendum campaign.
Same stance on migration
Most Labour voters and around 90 percent of its official and elected politicians campaigned for EU membership, and for most Labour Remainers the June referendum defeat was devastating. But at the same time, Labour's heartlands delivered some of the largest majorities for leaving the bloc.
It's not surprising the party is as confused on Europe as on its own future.
Much of what Corbyn said in his conference speech could have been said by a European social democrat 30 years ago. He demanded that employment, social protection rights, and environmental standards are protected in the future EU-UK settlement, as well as seeking continued access to the single market. However, Corbyn does want opt-outs from EU state aid rules to allow the British government to intervene in its industries.
Despite the fact that the Brexit vote among Labour supporters was, in large part, the result of public demands to limit migration and freedom of movement, Corbyn has not changed his stance on the benefits of migration.
“It isn’t migrants that drive down wages ... It isn’t migrants who put a strain on our NHS ... It isn’t migrants that have caused a housing crisis,” he said.
Instead, he said that a Migration Impact Fund should be reinstated to provide financial support for communities with high levels of immigration.
For the moment, Labour has, again, chosen a half-way house.
The consequences of Brexit did not make it onto the official agenda in the conference hall. But a motion that could, potentially, pave the way for a second referendum did.
Party delegates backed a motion stating that “unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained,” adding that “the final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or a referendum.”
It's this kind of half-heartedness and ambivalence that helped the UK to lose the referendum, and which has plunged Labour - so dominant a decade ago - into an existential crisis.
There won’t be much Tory soul-searching or half measures in Birmingham next week. Instead, there will be three days of political and intellectual battle over the direction of the Brexit negotiations. Except, unlike Labour, the direction taken by the Tories will actually shape the post-Article 50 world.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer