Scottish Labour conference 2018 - Brexit is the elephant in the room

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 9 March 2018 in Inside Politics

Delegates at Labour's conference in Dundee might be sick of Brexit, but it remains the divisive issue

Scottish Labour Conference 2018 - Holyrood

Neil Findlay has the air of man who is slightly tired of talking about Brexit. A left-wing dissident during the party’s time at the political centre, the list MSP for Lothians has long been seen as Corbyn’s man north of the border.

Findlay was one of the first to come out in support of Corbyn’s unlikely looking bid to lead the party, before going on to chair his leadership campaign in Scotland.

And if Findlay is sick of Brexit, it wouldn’t be hugely surprising to learn Corbyn – and Theresa May too, for that matter – feels the same. The issue is likely to define their legacies as leaders, yet almost everyone at the top of UK politics seems uncomfortable talking about it. Not that that will stop it shaping the atmosphere at the Scottish Labour conference.

The Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Brexit, Campaigns and Party Engagement told Holyrood: “It is a huge issue because it dominates the media, it dominates the TV, it’s the issue which fascinates the commentariat, and so inevitably, it’s the big issue which dominates our times. I don’t diminish that at all but I would say there are other massive issues – the fair work agenda and insecure work, for example. I don’t underplay the impact of Brexit – but there are other huge issues as well.

“I was jumping out my bed to campaign in that election [2017] because we had the best manifesto that I’ve ever campaigned on. I can only reflect on the doors I knocked at but Brexit wasn’t the issue for people. It was public services, it was jobs, it was a vision for a new future which dominated.”

Brexit or no Brexit, it’s been a pretty good year for Corbyn. His early days were not easy, facing a series of bungled coup attempts and repeated attacks in the press, before opposition eventually solidified around a challenge from Pontypridd MP Owen Smith. 

Smith was trounced by Corbyn, yet rumours of disquiet continued, with polling putting Theresa May up to 20 points ahead of Labour by April last year. Put simply, things were looking very bad for Labour, and very good for the Tories. And so it was that May called her election, launching a campaign almost entirely based around closed door appearances and mindless repetition of the phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and proceeded to throw away her parliamentary majority.

Corbyn won 30 more seats, with six more in Scotland. Theresa May’s majority was gone, while the SNP lost 21 overnight. Scottish Labour, reduced to just one MP in 2015, seemed to be showing signs of recovery. And so, with the party meeting in Dundee for its spring conference, Corbyn’s leadership looks far more secure.

Findlay told Holyrood: “A year ago – who would have predicted where we are? We went into that conference with big divisions – Jeremy [Corbyn] was under huge pressure – but then we had the election. We didn’t win but it was pretty remarkable, we defied every pundit possible and given where we were in Scotland, it was a very promising result. The contrast between the last conference and now is pretty significant, and I think the party took a good deal of confidence from that. I strongly believe that if we had another week we could have taken up to half a dozen more seats.

"Maybe the momentum came a bit late but the party made a tactical mistake in focusing on the referendum, when the public were onto jobs and the health service. Hope was what they wanted.”

Whatever the role of the referendum in the campaign, the result was remarkable. Yet it still wasn’t enough to dislodge May from Downing Street, despite the PM’s campaign ranking as one of the worst in recent memory.

Meanwhile, though the party’s success will have allayed criticism, infighting continues. Scotland was the only part of the UK where Smith received more votes than Corbyn in the leadership contest, and there remains a sense that the current truce is a fragile one.

So where is the party at now? Has Corbyn proved himself to members, or could another challenge be on its way?

Gemma Doyle, the MP for West Dunbartonshire between 2010 and 2015, admits to having been sceptical of Corbyn’s chances when he arrived as leader. Her Twitter handle reads: ‘Former politician, current human being. Can we have the Labour Party back now please?’ So, what is the mood like now?

She told Holyrood: “It takes a lot of energy to be constantly against something and I think there came a stage that people thought – ‘you know what, I’m just going to go along with this now’. The party did better in Scotland in 2017, and I think there are different reasons for that, but obviously, people are willing to give him [Jeremy Corbyn] some credit for the result. 

“The Scottish Labour Party is a funny beast. There is a real left-wing tradition, but our recent history has been to apply it in a very practical way. Partly that is because we were in government from 1997 – and Scottish Labour were bloody delighted to be in government, and able to do something – then we were also in government in Scotland during the early years of the Scottish Parliament.

"Our membership has always put a huge onus on winning power, and so understandably Corbyn was met with a huge degree of scepticism. We also didn’t have the same influx of new members, so in the 2016 leadership contest a majority of Scottish members voted for Owen Smith over Corbyn. 

“But after the 2017 election, I think a lot of Scottish Labour members just thought that they might as well go along with it. There are still people who are not supportive of Corbyn, however, by and large, they are a bit downtrodden and they won’t necessarily want to jump up and down and shout about it. They didn’t want another fight within the party – we do that a lot in Scottish Labour and it is exhausting.

"To a large extent there is nothing to fight over at the moment – we have no power. There are still issues surrounding the approach to Brexit, and I expect that will continue – but, there is no real appetite to continue to fight internally.”

Certainly, despite Findlay’s protests, Brexit looks likely to dominate the political agenda for some time, in Labour as everywhere else.

Yet some continue to question Corbyn’s stance, despite recent signs that the party was moving towards supporting a closer relationship with the EU after the UK leaves the bloc. 
Speaking last month, Corbyn promised: “Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union.

“We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal.

“So Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland.”

But the move wasn’t enough for some in the party, with a new campaign group, Scottish Labour for the Single Market, launched earlier this month with the aim of pushing the leadership to support permanent UK membership of the European single market and customs union.

Labour MEP Catherine Stihler is a co-chair of the campaign, alongside MP Ian Murray and former leader Kezia Dugdale. She told Holyrood: “Brexit, to me, is a complete disaster for our country, but if it is going to happen, we need to make sure every option stays open to us, which means the single market and the customs union stay on the table.

So we were pleased last week to see movement from the Labour Party towards supporting the customs union but we want things to move that step further and commit to the single market as well because of its importance for jobs, for our livelihoods and because of its benefit to Scotland and the UK.

“There is no good Brexit. Every part of Brexit will mean job losses, it will mean a lack of market access for our goods and services but having access to the single market is an option we need to mitigate the job losses. It’s so important to have a set of rules where we can freely trade goods and services across the EU, safe in the knowledge of standards and consumer safety, and where we come together with one set of rules across 28 countries to give us stability.”

Some, including Findlay, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, question the value of retaining single market access after leaving the EU, because it would mean giving up the chance to shape the rules which govern it.

Stihler doesn’t disagree. “It’s a fair argument – but it is also fair to point out that everything else is worse. Leaving the EU means we have no say and no influence, we have to be very clear about that.”

Stihler added: “As a party that fought to remain in the EU, I think people are thinking that the way the current government is handling Brexit is just appalling. I think among party members there’s an awareness of the benefits we receive, particularly through social rights and workplace rights, which are being threatened.

"The vast majority of the Labour Party voted to remain, and if you look at that, and then look at the current government and who they are listening to, it is the Eurosceptic voices which are driving the Conservative agenda, which is satisfying their party, but not the country. People supported last week’s announcement of a customs union but I believe a lot of people in Labour want the leadership to go further and commit us to being part of the single market if we are not going to be part of the European Union.”

Whether the leadership will be moved by the campaign remains to be seen, while for some in the party, any interference will be seen as yet another centrist attempt to disrupt Corbyn’s control.

As Findlay put it: “Some people think they run the Labour Party, that they have some sort of divine right to run the party, and when that got taken away, it has been a big shock to them. They can’t accept that, and they’ll never accept it. It’s just something we need to deal with.” 

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