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5 things we learned at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party conference

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jeremy corbyn john mcdonnell
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John
McDonnell.

Getty

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND — Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has been in
Liverpool this week for its annual autumn conference. It’s been a
relatively subdued affair, without the full-blown rows and
controversies seen at previous get-togethers. However, beneath
the surface, huge battles about the future of the party are
raging.

Business Insider has spent the week talking to many of the big
players in the party about what to expect from Corbyn’s
leadership in the coming months as the United Kingdom heads
towards Brexit. Here are the 5 things we have learned.

Labour will vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal


keir starmer
Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir
Starmer.

Getty

Brexit has dominated this week with the announcement that Labour
is officially planning to vote down whatever Brexit deal the
prime minister brings back from Brussels.

Sir Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, announced the news on Tuesday,
claiming that the deal May is trying to negotiate is unacceptable
because it will not pass Labour’s “six tests.” In truth, the deal
was never going to pass these six tests, given that they require
the prime minister to secure a deal that maintains
“the exact same benefits” of staying in the EU single market
and customs union. This is obviously impossible to achieve once
Britain has left them.

Nevertheless, with the vast majority of Labour MPs set to vote
down whatever deal she negotiates, and a significant number of
Conservatives threatening to join them, May could be set for a
humiliating defeat which would create chaos for the British
economy and possibly spell the end of her leadership.

“So, let me be very clear —right here, right now: If Theresa May
brings back a deal that fails our tests – and that looks
increasingly likely — Labour will vote against it. No ifs, no
buts,” Starmer told the conference.

But the party is still bitterly divided on Brexit


keir starmer 2Getty

However, the Starmer drama didn’t end there.

The Shadow Brexit Secretary also announced in his speech that if
another Brexit referendum takes place, “nobody is ruling out
Remain as an option.” This announcement came despite earlier
comments from the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell which
explicitly did rule such a vote out.

Starmer’s comments led to a standing ovation in the conference
hall among Labour’s overwhelmingly pro-EU membership. However,
behind the scenes, Corbyn’s allies were absolutely furious.

The comments were quickly
knocked down
by Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of
Labour’s biggest funders, the Unite Union. Gareth Snell, who is a
Labour MP for a Leave-voting seat in Stoke, described Starmer’s
remarks as “disappointing”,while Dennis
Skinner, the party’s most seasoned anti-EU MP, also appeared
unimpressed with Starmer’s speech in a clip that quickly
went viral
.

Allies of Corbyn confirmed to BI that Starmer’s comment, which
was not included in the speech sent out to the media beforehand,
had not been cleared with them, but sought to downplay their
significance. However, privately they accused Starmer of
attempting to force Labour into a big policy shift on Brexit.

This matters because anti-Brexit campaigners believe that Labour
is the key to unlocking a second referendum. Without Corbyn’s
explicit support for another vote, there seems to be little hope
that one will happen before the UK leaves the EU.

“If there has to be a second referendum at some point then let
Theresa May call for it and take the hit from furious Leave
voters” -Corbyn ally.

However, despite Starmer’s apparent unilateral shift in policy,
there remains little chance of the party suddenly joining the
ranks of the Stop-Brexiteers any time soon. Sources close to
Corbyn told BI that while they believe there is a very slim
chance that May could be forced into holding a second referendum,
the Labour leader remains committed to implementing Brexit and
has absolutely no intention of calling for a second vote.

“If there has to be a second referendum at some point then let
Theresa May call for it and take the hit from furious Leave
voters,” one source close to the Labour leader told BI.

Despite polling of the British public showing an
overall trend towards wanting to Remain in the EU
, Corbyn’s
allies believe this would go into reverse were a second
referendum actually called, with Labour taking a big hit for
leading the charge. They also fear that such a referendum would
be almost unwinnable and that those calling for one have become
blinded to the electoral realities that Labour finds itself in.

“The irony hasn’t been lost on us that the same people who spent
decades telling us on the left that we have to move to
accommodate the voters, are now determined to overrule what the
voters have told them,” one Corbyn ally told BI.

There is no sign of a party split, for now


luciana bergerGetty

Despite the public disagreements, there has been little sign of
any Labour MPs walking away — for now.

Labour’s summer had been dominated by an antisemitism crisis
which led in part to MPs John Woodcock and Frank Field to quit.
There is also talk of anti-Brexit Labour MPs breaking away to
form a new party. BI reported that some have
discussed getting together with Tory and Lib Dem MPs.

However, unity has been the theme of this year’s Labour
conference. At the fringe hosted by Progress — the group where
Labour’s more centrist, non-Corbynista MPs hang out — MPs took to
the stage and urged their colleagues not to leave. At a separate
event by the Jewish Labour Movement, some of the biggest critics
of Corbyn’s handling of the crisis also told their fellow
delegates to stay in the party. “There is no way I am being
driven out by racists in the Labour Party. I am staying put to
drive out the racists out from the Labour Party,” MP Wes
Streeting said.

The antisemitism row was addressed by Corbyn in his conference
speech on Wednesday, who told his party that while it “has
caused immense hurt and anxiety in the Jewish community and great
dismay in the Labour Party,” he hoped that “we can work together
to draw a line under it.”

While clearly not yet over, much of the heat seems to have
gone out of the antisemitism row, which at one point this summer
threatened to split the party in two.

But not that many MPs bothered to turn up


labour conferenceGetty

One of the most notable aspects of the week in Liverpool has been
the shortage of prominent MPs who bothered to turn up. Fringe
events and conference parties were filled with many of the same
faces, with Shadow Chancellor McDonnell filling the seats in
seemingly dozens of fringe meetings.

The fact of the matter is, that despite the relatively cordial
mood at year’s conference, the atmosphere inside the party is
still fractious, and some MPs simply didn’t fancy making the trip
to Merseyside.

One prominent Labour MP and Corbyn critic who did attend told BI:
“I’ve been shouted at walking between fringes. What the hell? We
should not be some fascist personality cult.” However, they added
that “I’m not going down without a fight.”

The media are starting to take a Corbyn government seriously


jeremy corbyn owen jonesGetty

It is sometimes difficult for an opposition party to get
attention for their annual get-together. Last week’s Liberal
Democrat conference was a perfect case in point, with a
near-empty press room and the biggest story of the week being
Vince Cable having an
embarrassing verbal slip-up during his speech
.

However, Labour has this week dominated the headlines, with
policy announcements on economic reforms splashed on newspapers
from across the political spectrum. Corbyn today used his speech
to attack the “billionaires who own the bulk of the British
press”. However, sources close to Corbyn told BI that they had
been delighted with the scale of the press coverage for their
policy announcements this week, some of which were
condemned by business groups
, but seem likely to be popular
among many voters. So pleased were they in fact that one
aide even posed for a picture in front of one particularly
critical Daily Telegraph splash.

It is said that there is only one thing in life worse than being
talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Well for the first time, the prospect of a Labour government,
which for years has been treated by sections of the press as an
unlikely joke, is now being seriously discussed and scrutinised.
And it’s not just the media that is taking it seriously.
Diplomats from other European countires were present in Liverpool
this week with one European Commission official at the conference
telling BI he was attending becasue he wanted to “feel out”
Labour’s Brexit policy, amid suggestions that Corbyn could be in
power before Brexit talks reach a conclusion.

And with recent reports suggesting May’s advisers are planning an
early election, and with the two parties neck and neck in the
polls, the prospect of a Corbyn-led government could soon become
increasingly real.

Our Brexit Insider Facebook group is the best place for up-to-date news and analysis about Britain’s departure from the EU, direct from Business Insider’s political reporters. Join here.

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