Better for Corbyn to embrace the will of the party now than buckle later

Andrew Harrop

It is three years from the dreadful morning of the referendum result and for all that time I’ve been torn on Brexit. My heart has said ‘Remain’ because Europe is best for Britain. But my head has said ‘soft Brexit’ because the referendum vote was lost.

So I get the balance Jeremy Corbyn has been trying to strike. The execution has often been mishandled, but the aim of delivering a ‘least bad’ Brexit to bring the country back together made sense. A silent majority of the parliamentary party thought so too.

But the Conservatives were not willing or able to offer soft Brexit and Labour’s triangulation has ended up alienating too many on both sides. The balance of electoral risk has shifted too, now that Remain voters have demonstrated they are prepared to abandon Labour.

The fears of the Brexit-minded Labour MPs who wrote to Corbyn last week are legitimate but nevertheless the party’s policy will now change. This is pretty much inevitable because Labour is a democratic movement. I continue to see both sides of the argument but, regardless of whether those who want to honour the referendum are right or wrong, they are too few in number. At party conference in September, most affiliates and constituency delegates will back Remain and, for all the party’s tradition of conference season stitch-ups, the pressure will be impossible to resist.

Jeremy Corbyn has always supported democracy within the party and it is his own rule changes that will make it harder to keep controversial business off the conference floor this year. Whatever his private feelings, he should make a virtue of necessity: better to embrace the will of the party now than buckle later. He should say that a Labour government will hold a second referendum and that he will personally back Remain.

We know the shadow cabinet is restive and there may be a showdown this week. But if Corbyn doesn’t budge, the temperature will not then cool. Next Sunday Labour’s formal policy consultation on Brexit will close and in the coming weeks the party’s international policy commission and joint policy committee will consider the results. Given the weight of opinion they will receive, there will be another row before the summer break if the policy does not change.

There are risks whatever Labour says on Brexit. But the die is already cast because party conference will insist on a pro-Remain position. The fence-sitters among us need to embrace that reality.

In any case, Labour’s more robust and democratic policy-making process is something to welcome, not fear. It was the leader’s office itself that decided to use this year’s cycle of policy consultations to address critical policy questions facing the party. For years, the annual process of policy reviews had dealt in generalities or dodged big issues. This time Labour has chosen to consult not just on Brexit but also on key operational questions about how to reform health and social care, build a National Education Service and renationalise the utilities.

To my huge relief, the party is also consulting on fundamental reforms of our failing social security system. At the 2017 election, Labour’s policy on poverty and social security wasn’t good enough, something leading figures in the party now openly admit. The current consultation is a huge move forward and marks the first time Labour has fully reviewed policy in this area since the early 1990s.

Serious, democratic policy debates on questions of principle and questions of detail mark an essential step towards government. And this Saturday there is a chance to discuss key areas of Labour policy at the FEPS-Fabian summer conference. Brexit, climate change, migration, health, education and social security are all on the agenda, and there will be keynote speeches from Angela Rayner, Jon Ashworth and Yvette Cooper.

With Boris Johnson approaching Downing Street and the looming possibility of a Halloween Brexit nightmare, we could now be months from an election. Labour may need all that policy detail sooner than we know it.

The FEPS-Fabian summer conference takes place on Saturday 29th June in central London. Tickets are free if you join the Fabian Society.

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