On paper, Labour’s conference has managed to unite around the Brexit position set out by the leadership. Delegates this afternoon overwhelmingly approved the NEC statement endorsing Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to decide how the party will campaign in a referendum at a special conference after a general election. They then voted down the rebel composite motion which called for the party to campaign unequivocally for Remain from now on.
But what happened in the conference hall was chaotic and means the issue is unlikely to feel resolved for a lot of party members. The NEC vote was overwhelming, but the vote on composite 13 was much closer. So close, in fact, that there was a disagreement between those on the stage about which way it had gone. Chair Wendy Nichols managed to tell the room that it had been carried, and then that it hadn’t been carried, while also saying that Jennie Formby, sitting next to her, thought it had gone the other way.
For what it’s worth, I was sitting on the balcony which overlooks the floor, and took photos of the composite 13 vote. The first picture shows those in favour, and the second shows those against. To my mind, it does appear clear that the motion was voted down.
The room the rose into an angry crescendo of calls for a ‘card vote’ – which is when votes are properly counted rather than there being just a show of hands. Nichols stood her ground, while also failing to be clear about what had happened. Delegates left, seething. The story of the conference is still the Brexit row.
But the leadership does have the endorsement of conference on its position. It appears to have achieved this by making this afternoon’s vote more of a matter of confidence in Corbyn’s leadership than one on the issue itself. When the NEC motion passed, the floor erupted into its regular hymn of ‘Ohh Jeremy Corbyn’. Speakers emphasised how much faith they had in Corbyn’s leadership. The Shadow Cabinet had been sent out with a line which allowed them to say that they had already made their mind up on how they would campaign while also backing Corbyn. The latest iteration of that line came from Keir Starmer, who spoke shortly before the vote. He said: ‘You know where I stand on the question of Remain. I’ve said many times that I will campaign for Remain but let me be very clear: I respect all of those who argue the other way.’
Starmer did ad-lib a rather telling line into his speech, though. He told the hall that ‘we’ve come a long way’ since he argued at last year’s conference that Remain must be an option on the ballot paper. It seemed to be his way of pointing out how much work he has had to do personally in pushing the leadership in the right direction.
Corbyn’s authority has still been boosted by today’s result. But the matter has just become even more fraught within the Labour party.