LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has been in Liverpool this week for its annual autumn conference. It’s been a relatively subdued affair, without the full-blown rows and controversies seen at previous get-togethers. However, beneath the surface, huge battles about the future of the party are raging.
Business Insider has spent the week talking to many of the big players in the party about what to expect from Corbyn’s leadership in the coming months as the United Kingdom heads towards Brexit. Here are the 5 things we have learned.
Labour will vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal
Brexit has dominated this week with the announcement that Labour is officially planning to vote down whatever Brexit deal the prime minister brings back from Brussels.
Sir Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, announced the news on Tuesday, claiming that the deal May is trying to negotiate is unacceptable because it will not pass Labour’s “six tests.” In truth, the deal was never going to pass these six tests, given that they require the prime minister to secure a deal that maintains “the exact same benefits” of staying in the EU single market and customs union. This is obviously impossible to achieve once Britain has left them.
Nevertheless, with the vast majority of Labour MPs set to vote down whatever deal she negotiates, and a significant number of Conservatives threatening to join them, May could be set for a humiliating defeat which would create chaos for the British economy and possibly spell the end of her leadership.
“So, let me be very clear -right here, right now: If Theresa May brings back a deal that fails our tests – and that looks increasingly likely – Labour will vote against it. No ifs, no buts,” Starmer told the conference.
But the party is still bitterly divided on Brexit
However, the Starmer drama didn’t end there.
The Shadow Brexit Secretary also announced in his speech that if another Brexit referendum takes place, “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.” This announcement came despite earlier comments from the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell which explicitly did rule such a vote out.
Starmer’s comments led to a standing ovation in the conference hall among Labour’s overwhelmingly pro-EU membership. However, behind the scenes, Corbyn’s allies were absolutely furious.
The comments were quickly knocked down by Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of Labour’s biggest funders, the Unite Union. Gareth Snell, who is a Labour MP for a Leave-voting seat in Stoke, described Starmer’s remarks as “disappointing”,while Dennis Skinner, the party’s most seasoned anti-EU MP, also appeared unimpressed with Starmer’s speech in a clip that quickly went viral.
Allies of Corbyn confirmed to BI that Starmer’s comment, which was not included in the speech sent out to the media beforehand, had not been cleared with them, but sought to downplay their significance. However, privately they accused Starmer of attempting to force Labour into a big policy shift on Brexit.
This matters because anti-Brexit campaigners believe that Labour is the key to unlocking a second referendum. Without Corbyn’s explicit support for another vote, there seems to be little hope that one will happen before the UK leaves the EU.
If there has to be a second referendum at some point then let Theresa May call for it and take the hit from furious Leave voters.
However, despite Starmer’s apparent unilateral shift in policy, there remains little chance of the party suddenly joining the ranks of the Stop-Brexiteers any time soon. Sources close to Corbyn told BI that while they believe there is a very slim chance that May could be forced into holding a second referendum, the Labour leader remains committed to implementing Brexit and has absolutely no intention of calling for a second vote.
“If there has to be a second referendum at some point then let Theresa May call for it and take the hit from furious Leave voters,” one source close to the Labour leader told BI.
Despite polling of the British public showing an overall trend towards wanting to remain in the EU, Corbyn’s allies believe this would go into reverse were a second referendum actually called, with Labour taking a big hit for leading the charge. They also fear that such a referendum would be almost unwinnable and that those calling for one have become blinded to the electoral realities that Labour finds itself in.
“The irony hasn’t been lost on us that the same people who spent decades telling us on the left that we have to move to accommodate the voters, are now determined to overrule what the voters have told them,” one Corbyn ally told BI.
There is no sign of a party split, for now
Despite the public disagreements, there has been little sign of any Labour MPs walking away – for now.
Labour’s summer had been dominated by an antisemitism crisis which led in part to MPs John Woodcock and Frank Field to quit. There is also talk of anti-Brexit Labour MPs breaking away to form a new party. BI reported that some have discussed getting together with Tory and Lib Dem MPs.
However, unity has been the theme of this year’s Labour conference. At the fringe hosted by Progress – the group where Labour’s more centrist, non-Corbynista MPs hang out – MPs took to the stage and urged their colleagues not to leave. At a separate event by the Jewish Labour Movement, some of the biggest critics of Corbyn’s handling of the crisis also told their fellow delegates to stay in the party. “There is no way I am being driven out by racists in the Labour Party. I am staying put to drive out the racists out from the Labour Party,” MP Wes Streeting said.
The antisemitism row was addressed by Corbyn in his conference speech on Wednesday, who told his party that while it “has caused immense hurt and anxiety in the Jewish community and great dismay in the Labour Party,” he hoped that “we can work together to draw a line under it.”
While clearly not yet over, much of the heat seems to have gone out of the antisemitism row, which at one point this summer threatened to split the party in two.
But not that many MPs bothered to turn up
One of the most notable aspects of the week in Liverpool has been the shortage of prominent MPs who bothered to turn up. Fringe events and conference parties were filled with many of the same faces, with Shadow Chancellor McDonnell filling the seats in seemingly dozens of fringe meetings.
The fact of the matter is, that despite the relatively cordial mood at year’s conference, the atmosphere inside the party is still fractious, and some MPs simply didn’t fancy making the trip to Merseyside.
One prominent Labour MP and Corbyn critic who did attend told BI: “I’ve been shouted at walking between fringes. What the hell? We should not be some fascist personality cult.” However, they added that “I’m not going down without a fight.”
The media are taking the prospect of a Corbyn government seriously
It is sometimes difficult for an opposition party to get attention for their annual get-together. Last week’s Liberal Democrat conference was a perfect case in point, with a near-empty press room and the biggest story of the week being Vince Cable having an embarrassing verbal slip-up during his speech.
However, Labour has this week dominated the headlines, with policy announcements on economic reforms splashed on newspapers from across the political spectrum. Corbyn today used his speech to attack the “billionaires who own the bulk of the British press.” However, sources close to Corbyn told BI that they had been delighted with the scale of the press coverage for their policy announcements this week, some of which were condemned by business groups, but seem likely to be popular among many voters. So pleased were they in fact that one aide even posed for a picture in front of one particularly critical Daily Telegraph splash.
It is said that the only one thing in life worse than being talked about behind your back is not being talked about at all. Well for the first time, the prospect of a Labour government, which for years has been treated by sections of the press as an unlikely joke, is now being seriously discussed and scrutinised. And it’s not just the media that is taking it seriously. Diplomats from other European countries were present in Liverpool this week with one European Commission official at the conference telling BI he was attending becasue he wanted to “feel out” Labour’s Brexit policy, amid suggestions that Corbyn could be in power before Brexit talks reach a conclusion.
And with recent reports suggesting May’s advisers are planning an early election, and with the two parties neck and neck in the polls, the prospect of a Corbyn-led government could soon become increasingly real.