A special Labour Party conference on Brexit – Q&A

By Rick Parnet

We should push as hard as we can for a special Labour Party conference to clearly decide the party’s position on Brexit.


An enormous amount has shifted (repeatedly) since the last conference in September, and things are continuing to shift. Even in September, the position taken was ambiguous. As events have unfolded, its ambiguities have become more and more untenable. As Brexit has approached, it has become more and more necessary to clarify, taking a clear decision between different viewpoints.

That is particularly the case in the new situation, with the Tories in disarray and Brexit postponed for over six months (31 October).

To have the greatest chance of working out rationally what we need to do and coming to a position that can unite the party and make it an effective force in the further upheavals ahead, that process needs to be a collective and democratic one involving members and affiliates to the greatest degree possible. Hence a special conference.

Is there time?

31 October is six and half months away. It would certainly be possible to call a special conference in, say two months – giving four and half precious months to campaign for an agreed position.

Brexit might be delayed again, but we can’t know. Waiting till our ordinary conference in at the end of September isn’t good enough – that will be only a month before the scheduled Brexit day.

You talk about democracy. But don’t you just want this so you can oppose Brexit?

Obviously in a democratic forum everyone will argue their view, and yes ours is anti-Brexit! Opposition to Brexit is clearly a widespread view among Labour members – in fact there’s strong evidence it’s the position of a substantial majority. Particularly given the situation, those members have every right to have that view considered by their representatives in a democratic decision-making process. Given what a disaster we believe Brexit is likely to be, we feel we have a duty to find a way to win Labour to fighting to stop it. Agree or not, there’s nothing sinister about that!

It’s also the case that many of the arguments for a special conference apply whatever your position on Brexit. Why shouldn’t members and affiliates steer our position on this important and urgent issue? What is the argument against this, even from a pro-Brexit point of view?

Are you so sure a special conference would take an anti-Brexit position? Wouldn’t it be stitched up?

In a genuinely democratic discussion and vote, there’s no guarantee of winning your position. But if a special conference didn’t come out clearly to try to stop Brexit, it seems unlikely the party would anyway. Far from being somehow privileged, the left-wing, anti-Brexit, pro-free movement views of the majority of members have often been reflected in policy and campaigning. They are more likely to win through in an open discussion at a democratic conference. In addition such a conference, devoted solely to this debate and with a huge amount of attention on it, would be hard to tightly control or stitch up. Even the tactic adopted by the leadership at last September’s conference, of insisting on a single (ambiguous) composited motion and not allowing different viewpoints to go forward for debate and voting, would be much harder to use.

Wouldn’t such a conference mean airing our rows in public?

That’s the argument the right wing of the party used against the left’s advocacy of democratic decision-making in the 1980s and 90s. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. In any case, our rows are already public! A properly organised and democratic decision-making process is the best way of introducing some order and dignity into them. It would also demonstrate that all the post-2015 talk of democratising the party is serious, not just rhetoric.

Surely a special conference isn’t the only form of democratic decision-making?

In this situation as it really exists, it’s hard to see another one. Clearly you can’t have a special conference about every issue, every month, so to speak. But here it seems fully justified. Note that in 1975 the party held a special conference to decide its position on European Community membership.

We should trust the leadership. They are clearly moving your way anyway.

It’s not clear what “trusting the leadership” means. It could mean many different things. Even the best leadership in the world doesn’t dispense with the need for oversight by members and their representatives through collective and democratic decision-making. That’s particularly true in such a serious and fast-changing situation.

Things do seem to be moving our way. But the party’s position seems to be constantly shifting, for instance on free movement and exactly what we say about a referendum – it depends on who has come out on top at a given point, and sometimes simply on who is speaking! Submitting the debate to the democratic court of the whole party is a way to transcend our divisions positively, rather than letting them be stifled in ambiguity until some sort of stitch-up or top-down decision emerges.

We would add that the leadership as a whole has, to put it tactfully, not always been firm on many important questions at stake – not only Brexit itself, but freedom of movement and other crucial related issues. Witness its disarray over opposing the Immigration Bill – explicitly explained in terms of of its position on Brexit. Moreover, one source of these political problems seems to be the influence of figures who hold no elected position in the party – Stalinist-influenced advisers like Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray. Both to challenge these kind of political views and to assert the principle of decision-making by members and affiliates, not unelected advisers, a special conference is necessary.

If things our shifting our way, great, but let’s build on and consolidate rather than relying on that shift and ending up disappointed.

So if there is a special conference, what would you argue there?

Labour should argue and fight to stop Brexit. It should campaign actively and publicly against Brexit and for a new referendum on any Brexit deal, with an option to remain, making clear now that it backs remain.

Whatever happens with Brexit, the party should fight for free movement and migrants’ rights to be defended – and extended – not curtailed. It should seek to unite all workers, of all backgrounds and origins, in organisation and struggle.

The party should restate and elaborate its commitment to forming what the Brexit policy passed at the last conference called “a radical government: taxing the rich to fund public services, expanding common ownership, abolishing the anti-union laws and engaging in massive public investment”.

Labour should argue to “Remain and Rebel” or “Remain and transform” by seeking to build a campaigning alliance of left-wing parties and labour movements across Europe – to challenge nationalism and anti-migrant policies, fight to reverse austerity and level up rights and living standards, and win democratisation of European institutions, as steps towards a socialist Europe.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

See also:
Members must lead on Brexit – we need a special conference (by Open Labour Co-Chair Tom Miller, on Labour for a Socialist Europe)
Why the demand for a special conference is crucial (also by Rick Parnet, discussing how this demand interacts with the politics of the Labour left)
“Why I’m calling for a special Labour conference on Brexit” – interview with Manuel Cortes

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