Labour’s vote to stay ‘ambiguous’ on Brexit – against both the advice of its MPs and members – signals once again that Corbyn is all bark, no bite.

First published in September 2019.

To say that Labour’s 2019 conference has proved to be rather chaotic is a depressing understatement. That statement is all the more galling when you consider that, at the time of writing, we still have two days of it to go. I feel genuinely sorry for a lot of the party’s members, most especially those wide-eyed souls who voted for Corbyn during the 2015 leadership election in hopes that he would further ‘democratise’ the inner structures of the party machine. Corbyn hasn’t, and if anything, he has gone further than Blair did during the era of ‘big spin’.

The failed attempt to remove deputy leader Tom Watson, a fresh antisemitic incident involving two Corbynites attacking Sadiq Khan, and the successful move to oust the party’s student wing, has meant that all in all, the conference’s brighter and genuinely intriguing policy moments, such as the desire for a four-day working week or abolition of private schools, have been overshadowed by the type of infighting that characterised the party during the Thatcher years.

There is some truth to the old Corbynite line that the media largely focused on the infighting and general chaos rather than big policy announcements, but to say that Labour didn’t help themselves with the various antics that have thus far occurred isn’t untrue either.

Back in the sand then, Jez? The Brexit stance (or lack thereof)

Arguably the biggest story from the conference has been the party’s decision to (once again) stay near-totally ambiguous on Brexit. In spite of impassioned speeches by the likes of Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, not to mention many Northern Irish Labour supporters and members, the party conference failed to back ‘Composite 13’, a motion that was designed to commit the party to backing (as they did in 2015) a Remain vote in any future referendum on a potential Brexit deal. Instead, the party conference passed the NEC ruling and ‘Composite 14’ – two leadership and union-backed motions – which committed the party to somehow remain ‘neutral’ and not take a definite stance on Brexit should a second referendum roll around.

The lead up to the vote was chaotic, even for a party conference. Those that have been to such events will know that, even with the best organizational skills in the world, there’s nothing to stop infighting breaking out on the floor and in the fringe events. I pity the poor moderator, who found herself not only heckled by various calls for ‘points of order’, but overruled by the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby when the former decided that putting the controversial issue to a card vote wasn’t a good idea. In the end, Composite 13 was shot down, and the NEC/Union-backed Composite 14 was passed.

The result is a big win for the Corbynites, but not necessarily the party as a whole. As chants of ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ rang around the hall, you could almost hear Jo Swinson and the other Lib Dems cheering back at their party HQ, champagne at the ready. As one pro-Remain source put it, “this party is so utterly f***ed. Another commentator wryly remarked about Corbyn’s ‘generosity’ in gifting the Lib Dems and other remain parties around 1.5 million extra votes.

By turning the vote into one surrounding loyalty to the ‘dear leader’, the party not only ignored the will of the vast majority of constituency parties, it also lost sight of what the vote was actually about, namely giving some much-needed definition to a party whose Brexit position of ‘tactical ambiguity’ has long been mocked by commentators and given ammunition to its political rivals across the country.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?

Whether or not this comes back to haunt Corbyn remains to be seen. Whilst yes, the vote is certainly a real boon for the Lib Dems and other pro-Remain parties like the SNP, you have to remember that (a) Corbyn, whilst bad at policy, is good at campaigning, and more importantly (b) the current prime minister is Boris Johnson, who has just been slapped in the face by a Supreme Court ruling that has declared his prorogation of Parliament to be illegal, meaning he either directly lied to or misled the Queen about the nature of such a prorogation.

As noted by Robert Peston in The Spectator, the Tories shouldn’t underestimate Corbyn and Labour. Corbyn’s ability to hold large rallies and imbue genuine hope amongst younger voters in 2017 saved him and Labour from what many pollsters and commentators predicted was a crushing defeat. Whilst the party’s conference has been plagued by infighting, there have been some genuinely radical policies that may cut through to all voters, regardless of their stance on Brexit

That all may not be enough this time around to save him, however. The Lib Dems in 2019 are far more energised thanks in part to defections from both Labour and the Tories, but also because of a great EU election result, an election remember in which Labour was punished for being ambiguous on Brexit. Whatsmore, whilst the Tories are indeed in chaos, both they, the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party offer far more clarity on where they stand on Brexit.

Once again, by sticking its head in the sand, Labour has alienated both sides of the Brexit debate that will dominate any upcoming election. Their one saving grace is the Tories are even more divided and chaotic than they are. Even then, however, I have my doubts as to whether further ‘tactical ambiguity’ will help. We all have to get off the fence at some point, right?🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 24 September 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Gif of the Composite 13 vote.)