At best, Labour’s policy on Brexit is hazy. At worst, in the words of the BBC’s John Pienaar, it is “as clear as mud.”
No sooner was Chuka Umunna conceding to be feeling “encouraged” by the words of John McDonnell on Labour’s position on the Single Market on Peston over the weekend, was there outrage in the ranks of Labour after it was decided there would be no real vote or discussion on Brexit over the conference.
Party officials did back down allowing for members in Brighton to debate Brexit for an hour on Monday morning amid a row over why more time was not being given to the issue after it was not chosen by delegates among eight policy motions for full debate.
After the debate, the NEC released the full statement on Brexit. As expected there was no specific option to stay in the single market. As BBC Political Correspondent Iain Watson tweeted “with no sense of irony the NEC Brexit statement says ‘we call on the govt [sic] to spend less time fighting internal battles.’”
The gossip and merry-go-round of speculation at conference is intently focused on Brexit, even if the leadership of the party doesn’t appear too keen to talk openly about the issue. The latest rumour circulating around Brighton is thatLabour heavyweights have suggested the party could back holding a second Brexit referendum.
Keir Starmer, Shadow Brexit Secretary, tried to clarify the position of Labour at a fringe event, despite talk that he was kept out of the loop of the NEC motion on the topic. He emphasised that Labour’s position was that they did not want the United Kingdom to become a deregulated tax haven after Brexit, a contrast to the demands laid out by Boris Johnson recently. In his speech to conference, he also hinted that retaining membership of the customs union could become party policy for Labour.
The Brexit debacle has no real signs of slowing for Labour. On Newsnight last night Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry refused to say that staying in the Single Market was off the table for Labour, echoing Starmer’s speech that they didn’t want to sweep every option away like the Conservatives had done.
This was followed by ex-Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale telling STV she is “embarrassed” that the issue was ducked at conference.
The view from Europe was also a telling insight into what Labour is facing internally from its colleagues on the continent. Representatives from the Irish Labour Party, PSOE in Spain and the overarching Party of European Socialists all came out in a fringe event, with Keir Starmer present, to call on the UK to remain a part of the European Union. There were even calls from the leader of the Irish Labour Party for Sinn Fein to break their absence from Westminster in order to vote on the Brexit issue.
What remains to be seen is a coherent approach from the whole front bench. The issue has not been tackled front-on, and while it appears that Labour is edging closer and closer to an ever-softer Brexit stance, it is still not fully known what Corbyn and his inner circle want. Just like in the EU referendum campaign, Labour is faced with being criticised for just not pulling its weight.