Labour's People's Vote stitch up

In the end, it was made even more toothless than we could possibly have imagined. After an evening of late night politicking, the Labour leadership has taken grassroots demand for a People's Vote and turned it into a position which is even more pro-Brexit than the one they had going in. This should be a sobering lesson for those who take Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell's claims about party democracy at face value.

Going into the conference, the leadership's attitude towards a People's Vote was that 'all options should be on the table' but that they'd ultimately prefer a general election. This morning, it is that Labour is pushing for a general election and only supports "all options remaining on the table" if there isn't one. In a way, you have to admire the chutzpah. They have actually massaged down their commitment.

Once all the 'composite' work was done, shadow chancellor John McDonnell walked into the Today programme studio and went even further. The vote he was talking about would not offer the ability to stay in the EU at all.

"I respect the referendum," he said, "We lost we have to respect that. It was a democratic decision. That's it."

So what exactly would be on the ballot paper? Certainly not Remain. "We'll be arguing that it should be a vote on the deal itself and then enabling us to go back and redo the negotiations," he said. Pressed again on whether there'd be an option to stay in, he added: "The issue now, if we are going to respect the last referendum, it will be about the deal.... The people's vote will be on the deal itself and whether we can negotiate again."

It's as cynical a manoeuvre as you could imagine: Taking local delegates from a grassroots campaign, inviting them smilingly into the jaws of the party beast, at a late night meeting, with press outside and politicians inside, and working them over until you've churned out a motion which is actually weaker than the policy you had before. Then trotting out happily the next morning to the radio studio and really plunging the knife in. 

But then, this is standard operating procedure for Labour: presenting things in vague, passive language and high principle, and then working constantly behind the scenes to use the party machinery to your advantage.

McDonnell's vision of how a vote would operate has the additional quality of actually being less realistic than the government's. He seems to think that the options on the ballot paper would be 1) the government deal, or 2) for Labour to go have a go. Presumably, if there was no-deal, as the conference motion states, the option would be between that and a Labour negotiation.

Of course, this is simply another way of having a general election. The only way Labour would be going in to negotiate is if it was in government. So what he really offers is a demand for a general election and then another demand for a general election if that one fails.

Quite where the time is for this new negotiation is another matter. The EU would probably extend Article 50 a little longer to allow for a referendum on the final deal, but it is less likely to extend it for years longer to allow for a new round of negotiation.

However, there is one glimpse of hope among the mess. It's back to the standard Labour Kremlinology of parsing their texts for Brexit keywords, I'm afraid. But in this scenario, both the motion and McDonnell's interview contain some interesting nuggets.

The motion retains the standard Keir Starmer promise of "full participation" in the single market but then adds, fascinatingly, that Theresa May's Brexit tactics are threatening "freedom of movement".

This is unusual. Usually, Labour Brexit material carries the cowardly formulation that leaving the EU would end free movement. This is false, but it works to distance the leadership from its policy in the eyes of young metropolitan voters while reassuring their older northern voters than there will be changes to immigration policy. Instead, the motion tacitly suggests Labour is now once again pro-free movement.

It's a particularly interesting move when you consider something else McDonnell said in his interview. It was put to him that he didn't like the EU because it put limits on what a future Labour government could do. This was a reference to state aid rules, which the leadership and its outliers have insisted would prevent their socialist project being implemented.

Today, that changed. "I've heard this allegation," McDonnell said, not mentioning that it was from his own colleagues. "In our discussions, we've had with our European partners, they want a working relationship with us that's close and collaborative. They see no impediment with regard to a new relationship we're going to establish that would prevent us implementing our manifesto."

He is exactly right but he has not been prepared to admit it until now. EU state aid rules were no impediment to the Labour manifesto, and this has been demonstrated thoroughly by academic research. McDonnell seems to finally be accepting that.

Put together, this removes two obstacles - ending free movement and removing Labour from state aid - to single market membership. The party seems to be removing almost any obstacle to a soft Brexit - Norway plus customs union.

This would also be much easier to negotiate with the EU in terms of time and fits into one of the pre-existing categories on offer. It might even be so attractive and simple that, if a Labour government did get into power before Brexit Day, it would extend Article 50 to negotiate it.

So that seems to be the Labour leadership's new approach this morning: cutting down the grassroots campaign for a People's Vote, but moving, slowly and subtly, towards accepting soft Brexit.

The trouble with all this is that Labour is not in power. Even if May returns with no-deal or has it voted down in the Commons, there is no guarantee that there will be a general election. So we're left where we were in the first place: with the Tories making the most godawful mess of the country and Labour content to sit there and prevaricate, occasionally issuing weirdly encrypted public communications designed to give everyone just enough hope to stick with them.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

This is how the Labour leadership could kill the People's Vote tonight

It's the climax of the campaign to get Labour to support a People's Vote on the final Brexit deal. An unprecedented 150 constituency Labour parties have submitted motions on Brexit. New polling shows an overwhelming 86% of Labour members want another say. Key figures, like deputy leader Tom Watson, have said the leadership needs to "respect" that view and "go out and argue for it". There are large demonstrations outside the conference centre demanding the leadership change its position.

Jeremy Corbyn, who is keen to avoid a second referendum, seemed to wobble yesterday when he acknowledged that he is "bound by the democracy of our party". If conference votes for another referendum, he says he'll act accordingly.

That suggests everything should be open-and-shut. Labour will now swing behind the campaign. But there is one event standing in the way of that process. It is supremely complex and opaque event which is defined by last-minute political scheming: the composite meeting.

For my money, the best person writing about this in a disinterested and experienced way is Theo Bertram, a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who covered it rather brilliantly here. He's an excellent guide to the unique form of arm-twisting and skullduggery it entails.

One tactic would be to rule out a debate on a People's Vote on the basis of the motions constituency parties have sent in. There are set criteria for these. They can't be over 250 words and they must be contemporary. The leadership could simply say the topic was not relevant because it had already been substantially discussed at previous conferences. But that is unlikely to work, given the sheer scale of the demands for a vote.

You then have a pile of motions which need to be sorted through into a form that can be voted on by members. That's where the Conference Arrangements Committee comes in. It sets the agenda for conference. It is directly elected by members and is currently under the control of Momentum.

It's impossible to debate everything, so its meeting tonight will try to narrow down the motions into a viable form for debate. This is what puts the 'composite' into compositing: you're dropping some motions, ignoring others and then finally welding them together, so that there's a manageable number and they reflect the kinds of demands that were made by constituency parties.

Delegates from those local parties will attend the meeting tonight together with officials and parliamentary front benchers. Perhaps they'll get the number of motions down to one. More likely it'll be three or more.

These meetings are not some kind of democratic utopia, where delegates meet on equal terms and participate in free and fair debate. In reality, individuals - who are often a little out of their depth in the great snarling jaws of the party machine - can be easily undone by a mixture of rules geekery and long-term planning. There's all sorts of shady goings-on, whoever is in charge of the process. Corbyn's lot are currently trying to eradicate the threat of a second referendum, but they'll likely use the same kind of tactics which Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband used in the past.

So you'll have a bunch of people in the room. A minority might be against a People's Vote, and will therefore quite easily congregate around a motion saying that. A majority will be for it. The task will be to narrow their demands down into a few motions.

This is where the leadership can employ some pretty dirty tactics. One favoured approach is to encourage the most radical and extreme individuals in the camp you want to defeat. These guys then meld their proposals with the more reasonable ones, but it still gives you a much clearer target than if it was just the credible delegates putting it together.

The composite motion is put out and the leadership releases all these reasonable-sounding arguments to attack it. They have created the argument they thought would be easiest to kill. In the days which follow, you'll hear fair-minded delegates saying things like: "Well I wanted to vote for this, but it has this major weakness." They won't know that the process was rigged to create exactly this thought.

The leadership is probably aiming to come out of that meeting with three motions: one which is anti-People's Vote, one which is pro-People's Vote, but ideally as wild and weak as possible, and another which looks like a compromise agreement. This would probably say something like: We do not rule out a second referendum and are prepared to hold one, but only if and when we fail to secure another general election.

This is in line with the message put out by Corbyn and McDonnell in the days running up to conference. In reality, it makes no sense. Labour is supporting Brexit, so another general election does not provide anything like what a second referendum on EU membership would. And it would of course be in the eye of the beholder when that secondary policy would be triggered, given that we're not expecting a general election anytime before Brexit Day. It would look like a compromise, carefully framed between two extreme positions, but in reality it would just neutralise the People's Vote campaign.

We won't know much about what happens in that meeting. The whole process is shrouded in secrecy. But it's likely that this is Corbyn's tactic: say you'll support party democracy, then get to work behind the scenes, in the technical arena of the party management system, and kill off members' opportunity to have it.

It might work. Or it might not. Local Labour parties have been bloodied by the battle to get this far. They have faced down Momentum and their arguments over and over again. The organisations behind this campaign, like Best for Britain, have been working according to a deliberate, well-thought-out strategy. And the democratic push is extraordinary. Members have shown, in a way which the leadership simply cannot ignore, that the Labour grassroots is demanding opposition to Brexit.

Tonight we find out whether they can get past that final hurdle. It could go either way.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: Ukip loses the plot completely

There were only ever two directions for Ukip to go after Brexit. It could either paint itself as the guardian of 'true Brexit', which would be defined in opposition to whatever compromises a government would need to make to deliver it. Or it could shift further to the right into explicit Islamophobia, in the style of Donald Trump and Viktor Orban.

Nigel Farage has carried the flag for the former approach, while new leader Gerard Batten has opted for the latter. This week he revealed just how far he was prepared to take it.

An interim manifesto unveiled for a party conference on Friday proposed Muslim-only prisons, special screening for Muslim immigrants, the repeal of all equalities laws, abolishing hate crimes and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and a five-year time limit on new immigrants before they are allowed to buy homes.

The language of the manifesto also borrowed from the far-right, with constant references to "the political doctrine of cultural Marxism" (God knows), as did the guest list, which includes a bunch of internet eccentrics and crackpots.

Batten uses the standard mental construction of authoritarian nationalists everywhere: the purity of Britain's "peoples" being threatened by an inferior and yet somehow also extremely powerful Other, in this case Islam. And there are, as usual, the standard dreary conspiracy theories about the "politically correct thought police knocking on our doors".

At no point do these guys ever seem to realise that they are making the exact argument which they claim it is impossible to articulate because of the thought police. If the conspiracy was real, why are they free and saying all the things which apparently you cannot say? It is an argument which refutes itself the moment it is said out loud.

Quite apart from the obvious moral objections, the proposals would actually increase the problems they are ostensibly meant to solve. Putting all Muslims, regardless of their crime, in one jail - pickpockets mingling with terrorists - would, of course, increase the risk of radicalisation. Scrapping equality legislation so that anyone can discriminate towards people, say by refusing to sell to them or putting up signs outside their restaurant saying 'No Muslims', would increase the social prejudice which drives some people towards extremism in the first place.

But far-right proposals are never really meant to offer solutions. They are meant to make tiny-minded people feel better about themselves. Batten is not really engaged in a war against Islam or political correctness or anything else. He is engaged in a war against his own emotional insecurities.

For everyone else, the main task when faced with grotesque proposals like these is to strike the right balance in response.

Ukip cannot be ignored. Batten has struck up an alliance with the far-right figure Tommy Robinson. They can mobilise a few thousand people. Protests over Robinson's imprisonment earlier this year saw a coming together of the jackbooted British far-right and the tech-literate American alt-right under Steve Bannon.

You have to keep your anti-fascist eyes on that. But you shouldn't allow it to affect your own thinking. Far too many centrists, leftists and liberals feel they need to accommodate the far-right, whether it is on challenging Brexit, or giving up on free movement, or acknowledging the 'perception' of problems with immigration.

It's a nonsense. They are a tiny group of self-hating hysterics who have projected their damaged sense of self onto imaginary enemies. You cannot ignore them. But you can mock them and their sad little fantasy policies. Batten in particular is worthy of the most extensive ridicule. He should receive it in spades. After all, anything else would be political correctness gone mad.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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