By Robin Jackson
The Brexit political crisis in Britain is rapidly approaching its next crunch point. Boris Johnson is fighting to secure a pro-Trump Brexit, whilst he builds up the Tories’ propaganda campaign in advance of a general election he hopes Parliament will soon agree to call.
The principal aim of the Trump administration is get Britain out of the customs union with the EU, then the US can strike up a free trade deal with the UK, on terms overwhelmingly favourable to the US. Johnson is trying to take the UK down this path and Farage’s Brexit Party is positioned to seriously damage the Tories in a general election should they not stick with Trump’s agenda.
Jeremy Corbyn is clearly leading the fight against the only Brexit proposal currently on offer. He has brought together an anti-No Deal coalition and is determinedly putting forward hegemonic tactics to try to stop Johnson’s Brexit proposal. The SNP, the third largest party in Parliament, is willing to back Corbyn to form a temporary government to block Johnson’s proposals. But both the Lib Dems and most of the 21 Tory rebels who supported the ‘Benn Act’ regard subservience to a Trump deal Brexit as preferable to any form of Corbyn government.
The fact that the Lib Dems will aid a Johnson Brexit needs to be more publicly explained.
Whether there is a general election this year or not is a decision that Parliament will make, but it must be seen against the dynamics of recent polls and elections.
Opinion polling for the next United Kingdom general election
2019 – Moving average of 5 consecutive polls
A table of opinion 2019 polls of general election voting intention can be found on Wikipedia here. Above is a graph of those polls in which each point is an average of five polls around that date. This moving average smoothes out some of the fluctuations to make more visible any underlying pattern. The graph points to a number of issues:
- The Tories cannot be confident they would achieve a majority government if there is an election this year. Recent polls indicate their support in the low thirties, about 10% below their 2017 election result. They are expected to lose all 13 of their current Scottish seats. They recovered around three quarters of the 20% support they lost from February to June, but since August their support has not risen.
- The Lib Dems are currently polling around 20%, more than double their 2017 election level of support. From April this year their support rose rapidly from around 10% to 20% in June, and since then they have managed to maintain that support. They are positioning themselves primarily as against Labour and in a general election orientating to help the Tories remove Labour MPs in Labour/Tory marginal seats. Their priority is to block Corbyn and will aid the election of Tory MPs to do that.
- Labour is currently polling near the mid-twenties, about 15% below its 2017 result. From April this year its support fell rapidly from the mid-thirties to around 21% in June. Since then its support has risen towards the mid-twenties.
- The pattern of Labour’s changing polling support is a broadly a mirror image of the Lib Dem pattern. Likewise the changes in Tory and Brexit Party support broadly mirror each other. This is to be expected given the majority of Remain supporters amongst Labour voters and the majority of Leave supporters amongst Tory voters.
Labour is currently preparing for a general election, though there is some discussion within the party as to whether it would benefit from having more time to recover from the support it lost during the European election campaign. Whenever an election takes place the priority at present for Labour is to win back Remain supporters, the largest bloc of voters that have shifted away from Labour this year.
Labour Party Conference – attempts to undermine Corbyn
Despite a difficult start to Labour Annual Conference in September, due to a poorly executed attempt at eliminating the post of Deputy Leader from the party’s rule book and the damaging Sunday Times piece on Andrew Fisher, Corbyn and his supporters managed to retrieve the situation and make a success of the conference.
A number of hurdles had to be overcome. Aside from the Deputy Leadership post debacle, there were a number of determined efforts to undermine Corbyn’s agenda, which were largely defeated by the delegates. In the run up to the conference a pincer movement of attacks was set up against some of the leadership’s key policies, with a view to defeating them at the conference. The attacks were actually set up by political forces operating from within the left, and taking advantage of support that the right wing gives to any attempts to weaken Corbyn’s policy agenda.
Conference backs Corbyn on Brexit
On Brexit there were attempts, which failed, to undermine Corbyn’s policy of leading the alliance against a Trump-deal Brexit. Unlike Labour’s 2018 conference, when both pro-Leave and pro-Remain camps within Labour agreed to a single composite backing the leadership’s approach to fighting Theresa May’s Brexit agenda, this year elements in both Labour camps were determined to scupper any agreement being reached around a single composite. So, in the end there were two composites taken to the conference floor for discussion.
One composite was based around the politics of a model motion circulated by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), which endorsed Corbyn’s leadership of the fight against a No Deal/Hard Brexit. The other composite sought a decision now that the party will recommend Remain in any referendum that a Labour government organises if and when it has negotiated its own withdrawal agreement with the EU. The composite ignored the fact that the EU is unlikely to entertain serious negotiations with a Labour government that is publicly committed to rejecting any agreement reached in those negotiations. It would just be a waste of the EU’s and Labour government’s time.
The former composite, backing the leadership’s policy, was agreed and the latter was defeated. An NEC statement, endorsing Corbyn’s approach, was also agreed.
This year, for the first time, Momentum promoted its own policy motions into the conference and it decided to put forward a number of proposals that potentially sounded radical, but in reality are totally unworkable. It demanded its policies be included in the forthcoming general election manifesto, despite the fact that they clearly would not survive the scrutiny of a general election campaign, so would inflict damage on Labour as they were torn to shreds.
The problematic demands Momentum is fighting for are: 1) on tackling climate change, that Labour should make a commitment to zero carbon emissions by 2030; 2) that within a 5 year Parliamentary term Labour will ‘introduce a four day week with no loss of pay for all those who want it’; and 3) an end to all immigration detention.
On both climate change and the working week delegates at the conference ensured that workable composite motions were put to the vote, instead of Momentum’s fake left policies, and as a result helped strengthen the leadership’s agenda. On immigration detention the pincer movement against the leadership was taken to the conference floor with a composite motion, proposing an end to immigration detention and the extension of freedom of movement rights in an unspecified way. The motion was agreed, with not only the left at the conference voting for it, but also the right wing, that does not support these demands, voting in favour. Despite its unrealistic demands, it was passed with very few voting against.
There is growing disquiet amongst Momentum activists about the political direction it is currently taking. The effect of all the unworkable policy motions noted was to undermine the leadership of the Labour party. There is a campaign calling for Momentum to orientate back to its original purpose, supporting and defending the political agenda of Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour Conference decision making
The total vote that is cast at a Labour conference is made up of two parts, half is in the hands of the delegates from local Labour Parties (CLPs) and the other half is held by Labour’s affiliates, which are mostly trade unions. At the conference an overwhelming majority of the CLP delegates support Corbyn as Labour Leader plus a significant part of the trade union leadership also backs him. The alliance between these two parts of the left, from the CLPs and the unions, was decisive in determining that Corbyn could run for re-election as Leader in 2016, when he was challenged by the right wing.
Within this alliance, of those in the CLPs and unions that back Corbyn as Leader, there is an on-going discussion about the structural changes necessary to Labour’s rule book so that the party is best equipt to win a general election. There are differences of opinion on these issues, which on the conference floor superficially appear as differences between the CLP left and trade union left.
Leadership election rules
A fundamental question is whether Labour in future should be led by the left or not. If Labour is to be led by the left in the future, when there is next an election for Leader, if the post is vacant ie Corbyn is not running again, then the left’s preferred candidate needs to be able to stand in that election. Currently there is no guarantee that this will be possible. The Labour Party’s rule book gives MPs an effective veto over who can stand as a candidate for Leader and qualify to appear on the ballot paper. There is a requirement that a candidate must secure at a minimum the nominations of 10 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs. Given the unrepresentative political balance of the current Labour MPs, it would be almost impossible for a candidate that supports Corbyn’s agenda to secure inclusion in a leadership election.
At this year’s conference several CLPs submitted motions raising the issue of the MPs’ veto in leadership elections. The motions sought a decision by conference to call on the NEC to put before the 2020 conference proposals to improve these undemocratic rules. Unfortunately, the week before conference the NEC took a decision that ‘organisational’ motions could not be discussed by the Conference.
Ending the MPs’ ten per cent threshold needs to remain a priority for activists on the left, both in the CLPs and in the unions. What is needed is an agreement between Corbyn’s supporters in the CLPs and the unions to reduce the MPs threshold to five per cent. If the unions want to have their own veto, for example set at five per cent, that should be accepted as it is entirely reasonable. What should not be accepted is the continuation of the MPs’ veto, allowing them to block Labour’s next leader coming from its left. Such an important issue as the leadership should be decided by Labour’s members and trade union affiliates not by MPs.
The NEC this year proposed, and conference agreed, rule changes to introduce a new ‘fast track’ disciplinary process where the judgements on allegations of bringing the party into disrepute and on any penalties, including expulsion, would be taken by NEC members. These new rules risk breeching the normal legal standards of natural justice that the NCC currently works to, in a process where the rights of party members will be significantly reduced. An accused member will have a limited opportunity to present their own case and to challenge evidence being put against them, with no proper opportunity of cross examination of witnesses and their statements.
At the conference the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s (CLPD) daily publication Yellow Pages urged delegates to oppose the rule change and Momentum supported the rule change. In the ballot on the rule change 52.3% of CLP vote was cast against the change and 47.7% in favour of it, 97.4% of the affiliate vote was cast in favour.
The political balance within the CLPs at conference
The elections that take place at the conference give some indication as to the political balance of the CLP delegations at the conference. This year there were elections to the CLP Section of the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) and for the newly created Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) Disabled Members Representative.
The NCC election indicated that the left had a large majority amongst the CLPs – a Centre Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA) slate for three NCC places secured 69.6% of the CLP vote.
The CAC election was across the entire conference (CLPs and affiliates) and was won by a right wing candidate backed by most of the unions, who secured 57.2% across the conference. There were two left candidates in the election, the first was backed by most of the CLGA organisations except for Momentum (CLPD, Labour CND, Labour Representation Committee, Labour Briefing Co-op and Jewish Voice for Labour) and the second was backed by Momentum. The first one secured 19.3% of the conference vote and Momentum’s candidate just 12.0%. This division on the left was unnecessary, but the right wing would have won even if the left had been united, due to the affiliates’ votes. What the division did reveal is that Momentum is a minority part of the left, securing 40% of the left vote, with the rest of the left on 60%.
Conference – a success for Corbyn
Despite the differences within the left over the CAC election and over the key issues of power in the party, that are the matters set out in the rule book, the conference was a significant boost for Corbyn. It ended on a high note, following the Supreme Court’s unanimously ruling that the prorogation of parliament was unlawful and a Leader’s speech which received many standing ovations. Corbyn’s policy agenda had been overwhelmingly endorsed, with unworkable commitments mostly defeated.
The priority now for the left is to win back the support Labour has lost this year, and that means promoting Corbyn’s policy agenda. As part of that Labour needs to reach out to Remain supporters promoting Corbyn’s leadership of the fight against Johnson’s Brexit.