by Trevor Fisher
The first Open Labour conference on March 11th was a successful launch of the project. In a school hall, 230 attendees took part for an afternoon of discussion. Not all were members, but when a tight vote on an amendment led to tellers counting, 104 members had voted. This was a respectable number. I had sympathy with the colleague who asked “have we not decided this?”, not so as this was a first event, but OL was understandably treading a familiar path at this early stage. It will be for the perspectives conference in June to decide what the Unique Selling Point of OL will be.
The attendees seemed to be drawn from the Miliband cadre who had come to hear their leader. The age profile was around half over 50, about the same under 30. Anyone in their 30s or 40s and joined during the New Labour years seem not to warm to Open Labour so both the pre- New Labour and post New Labour cohorts seem to be the people attracted to Open Labour. However whether Open Labour can confront the failures of the Miliband era as well as those of earlier years is an open question – and very much open after Ed Miliband spoke to end the conference,
Miliband rightly focused almost entirely on Brexit in his 15 minute contribution, correctly as this is the defining issue of the current period, and supported the current Corbyn-Starmer line. This is to accept Brexit and the 2016 referendum but to seek a soft Brexit with concessions, none of which are on offer – certainly not EU citizens’ rights and access to the single market, currently dominating the debate. It is a fact that none of the amendments Labour put to the Article 50 bill were accepted, and the Tories did not accept any of the Lords amendments. Labour is not likely to propose a constitutional crisis by using the Lords to overturn the rights of the Commons as the last thing an unpopular Labour Party can do is use the unelected Lords to block the decisions of the elected chamber. Certainly not to challenge the referendum result, which gave the government the mandate to trigger Article 50.
The power to decide what happens lies with Number 10, unless there is a Tory revolt. As the position of the Prime minister is to block any softening of the Hard Brexit on offer, and this gives the Tory MPs the chance to win elections for as far ahead as can be seen, they have little incentive to do this. May is clearly out to destroy UKIP, picking up the Hard Leave voter from Farage’s motley crew, and pick up Labour leave voters where the can exploit the Leave vote. In Copeland this worked to a T notably with the drop in the UKIP vote. In seats where Leave was a majority last June the formula can work – in both the recent by-elections the Leave vote seen as Tory plus UKIP was greater than Labour and Lib Dem combined, and it is clear why Labour is worried. Miliband referred back to his own constituency and it was obvious he and other Labour MPs in the north are rightly worried about losing to the Tories. The alternative strategy of taking Tory remain voters and turning soft Leave voters into Remain voters is not on the agenda.
The latest (March 10th) polls put Tory on 44%, Ukip on 11% giving the two strong Leave parties 55%. Labour is on a pitiful 25% and the Lib Dems on 10%. There are 10% of the electorate voting for other parties, but this would give only 45% for Remain if all the voters went for that position. Its clear why the Labour front bench is worried.
However, the central problem for the Labour strategy is that the Tories would be mad to make concessions to save their bacon. The most likely scenario is for the Tories to knock down every amendment, as they did with the Article 50 bill. If Labour finds it loses every proposal while still endorsing Brexit its position becomes untenable, and that of the SNP and Lib Dems grows more attractive to Remain Voters. Thus Labour cannot bridge the gap by offering to back a soft Brexit. There is no reason for the Prime Minister to play ball, and every reason for her to want to see Labour’s pitiful 25% poll ratings to decline further.
At the Open Labour conference, Miliband’s attempt to present a soft Brexit with safeguards for the Labour core values was insubstantial. Unless the front bench and its supporters can win votes in the Commons against a Tory majority in the coming weeks, the danger is that Labour will fail either to defend its old Remain position, which it has now abandoned to the Lib Dems and the SNP and fail to be convincing Leavers. At the Open Labour conference, Miliband gave no sign he understood that the compromise solution Labour wants is in the gift of Theresa May – who has no incentive to compromise.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009