The angry union boss, the archaic rules, the coffee breath: The inside story of the meeting that decided Labour's Brexit policy

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Monday 24 September 2018 18:15 BST
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Delegates suspected the meeting to set the motion for Labour’s critical conference vote on a new Brexit referendum might be long, but not quite this long.

They also expected it to be tough, but nobody going in thought they would end the night having seen a union boss look like he might “burst into tears”.

The real giveaway that things were going awry was about an hour-and-a-half in, when a disagreement broke out about the very meaning of the word “consensus”.

Another 90 minutes later at around half nine, delegates were hungry, the room was beginning to smell of coffee-breath and the mood was turning fractious. They needed a break.

One who came up for air told The Independent: “We haven’t even started on the wording of the motion yet. Three hours have gone by, no-one’s eaten, and we haven’t even started.”

In hindsight, nobody should be surprised it was so arduous. Labour’s approach to Brexit has been a delicately sculpted piece of realpolitik, designed to accommodate both wings of the debate.

Leavers were assured Labour “respects” the decision to quit. Remainers were comforted as Sir Keir Starmer gently softened the Brexit his party is aiming for.

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Yet up to now everything still has always ended in Brexit. The Rubicon that the proposed People’s Vote referendum threatens to cross, is that it calls that outcome into question. The meeting on Sunday was a little taste of just how choppy that crossing might be.

It kicked off around 6pm when some 300 delegates, union and constituency party representatives, Starmer, his team and Jeremy Corbyn’s lieutenants, all bundled into a room in the conference centre in Liverpool.

At the top table was Usdaw’s head of research and economics, Fiona Wilson, a member of Labour’s Conference Arrangements Committee and a calm head to chair the meeting.

Starmer and his staffers were seated nearby and hovering around the top table were a mix of leader’s office bodies, policy officers and other staffers.

The room was set up like a theatre, but instead of being a nice broad auditorium, it was long and thin, something that would make the more intense debating difficult later on. At the beginning of the session however, sun promisingly flooded into the room after what had been a rainy day on Merseyside.

Delegates sat around cheerily sipping the hot drinks laid on, tapping out messages to friends they would meet in the Pizza Express nearby for dinner, optimistically chatting about the next episode of the BBC drama Bodyguard to be screened at 9pm.

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But as the leadership’s first draft of the proposed motion emerged – winding through six pages of detailed backstory, citing polls, dates, Tory politicians and EU officials – the sun went down, leaving only the needling electric lamps lighting the event.

“Those lights really didn’t help the headache situation,” a delegate said.

The first draft is a Frankenstein motion – sewn together from a hotchpotch of more than 150 different sections of other motions tabled by constituency parties, unions and other organisations.

On the piece of paper it’s written on, you can see which specific sentence of it came from which branch or union, meaning everyone can feel their own local motion played some kind of role feeding into the final process.

But despite all that material going in, the first draft only dedicated a few lines at the very end to a new referendum, saying that if no election could be secured Labour would “decide what happens next”, and that all options including a public vote should remain open.

It quickly became clear that for many in the room the wording, reflecting comments made by Corbyn and John McDonnell in recent weeks, did not go far enough.

None less so than burly TSSA union boss Manuel Cortes, a leading voice in the Remain camp, who quickly brought forward an alternative – two pages, clearer, more concise and a third of it dedicated to a new referendum.

Critically, it introduced some of the stronger language that made it into the final version, but also some which did not.

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It read: “If no general election is called in which the people can have a say on their futures, Labour must support an extension to Article 50 and a public vote on the terms of the Brexit deal.”

Starmer and his team were now talking quietly to each other and on their phones in the corner of the room, with some delegates suspecting they were taking soundings from the leader’s office.

The frontbench team at this point were still defending the original text, pointing out that it backed up the shadow Brexit secretary’s chosen sequencing of events – first Labour’s six tests, then a Theresa May deal potentially voted down, a push for an election, and then if that did not work out, consideration of a public vote. But other delegates now wanted the Cortes text to be the starting point for negotiations.

With archaic rules blocking any votes on specific issues, the meeting’s leaders found it hard to even know if the room agreed on key points, leading to a maddening tangential debate breaking out on what “consensus” actually means.

Nonetheless, the Cortes text seemed to be taking root, with one speech in favour of a new referendum winning the only standing ovation of the night up to that point. It was then met with a fight-back, with sceptical delegates warning that committing to a People’s Vote now would play into the Conservatives’ hands.

One Labour insider said at the time: "The vast majority of people here are from [constituency parties] and clearly have little experience of compositing.

"There have been endless speeches from across the spectrum, which often ramble into personal stories about people's lives."

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It was now three hours in, delegates had cancelled other plans and were beginning to get hungry. There was an adjournment, some dashed out of the room to try and scrape up the dregs of buffets in the surrounding area, others sneaked a cheeky drink to pick themselves up.

As it approached 10pm some began asking Starmer for selfies, while the frontbencher’s policy officers rattled out what the former director of public prosecutions hoped would be the final compromise.

The adjournment dragged on while someone went to to get the new motion photocopied and Starmer prepared himself to convince the room it was the way to go. With stomachs rumbling and yawns spreading, delegates began to think progress might now be made, if nothing else because they wanted to go home.

Copies of the new motion arrived and were handed round. Mention of an Article 50 extension had been scratched, a bridge too far, but the word “must” did appear in the crucial section committing Labour to campaigning for a new referendum if no election takes place.

“If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table including campaigning for a public vote on the terms of Brexit,” it read.

Starmer had also adopted in general the more pithy approach of the Cortes text. The mood in the room was now definitely changing, it was nearing midnight, beds were calling, but it was not over. Those who disliked the idea of a People’s Vote more broadly began to kick off again.

We don’t know what’s going to happen between now and November. We don’t know exactly what Theresa May is going to do, how the EU might respond

Senior Labour source

Among their number was Ian Hodson, national president of BFAWU or the Bakers union, which won its seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee with the backing of the GMB and Unite. He stood up and began what one onlooker described as a “proper, mad rant”.

“He went ballistic,” said the witness.

“I thought he was going to burst into tears.”

Another source said: “He was getting frustrated that he hadn’t had a say, and this argument broke out about whether he had been there at the start of the night or not.”

Jeremy Corbyn arrives at Labour party conference in Liverpool

There was discomfort on the other side too, about those words on the end of the new motion – “on the terms of Brexit” – which appeared to speak to comments by Unite boss Len McCluskey earlier in the day that if there is a new public vote, it must only be one on how Brexit happens, still end in Brexit and shouldn’t be about staying in the EU.

Even Starmer, usually a picture of lawyerly professionalism, began to show signs of frustration when five hours into the meeting, someone decided it was time to stand up and bring freedom of movement into the debate.

But the direction of travel was already set and with a few further amendments the motion that had been shaped by Starmer from the Cortes text was eventually approved.

In the final version those constraining words – “on the terms of Brexit” – were struck off. It was a move that the frontbench team argued allowed the motion to maintain flexibility to respond to a fast changing situation in the coming weeks.

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“We don’t know what’s going to happen between now and November. We don’t know exactly what Theresa May is going to do, how the EU might respond,” said one senior Labour source.

“To tie yourself to a particular position now, reducing your ability to manoeuvre in a very unpredictable situation is not the right way.”

But the removal of those words also characterises Labour’s entire approach to its internal politics, clutching on to that element of ambiguity so vital to efforts to hold the party together.

It means Labour Remainers can claim a victory, pointing to the undoubtedly stronger commitment to a referendum of sorts, and holding out hope that despite McCluskey’s words, the way is still open for the position to develop into allowing a vote that would permit staying in the EU.

But it also left room for shadow chancellor John McDonnell to go out the next morning and keep Leave voters happy, saying any referendum should be on May’s deal, not on staying in the EU.

The truth is the decision of what’s in any referendum has been deferred, but it will still be unnerving for Remainers that, in the fast moving world of Brexit, it probably won’t be settled in a compositing meeting next time, where they can pressure the leadership, but behind the closed doors of the leader’s office and shadow cabinet.

That is why the certainty that both McDonnell and McCluskey are at this point opposed to the idea of an option to stay in the EU, shows Labour’s Remainers still have a long way to go.

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