The conference was held in London, with the main theme being “Brexit and Beyond”, with keynote speeches from Keir Starmer, Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry.
These are my personal notes of issues I found interesting or important in some way – definitely not a transcript of what was said in a very full and complex day of presentations and discussion.
Constitutional reform – Politicians are widely viewed as remote, and trust in politicians is very low (“experts” much higher). The last five years have demonstrated that our constitutional model does not work in the interests of the people, and risks capture by an overweening government or Prime Minister. We need to formalise some elements of the constitution to secure citizen’s rights and to prevent capture of Parliament by Executive. We need radical devolution of power to nations, regions and localities. Countries with written constitutions have more protection.
A positive inclusive vision – we need not only to criticise the current government and the EU, but to offer a positive vision of society, and plans to achieve this, including plans to reform and remain in the EU. It needs to be a vison which works for everyone
Populism. Faith in all forms of politics is weakening globally, opening door to “populism”, though it may have passed its peak in US and EU as false promises come home to roost
Leadership – people expect leaders to keep us safe, and embody our values. Theresa May has eroded faith in that.
Sovereignty. Sharing sovereignty is not losing it, but strengthening it through cooperation. A sovereign state can choose to share its sovereignty (e.g. NATO) in order to solve problems too big for a single country
Brexit. Extension of Article 50 is essential. There is no longer time to prepare for any kind of Brexit. Any outcome will offend a significant group of the electorate, so we should do what we believe right for the country. If we have a referendum, we must have a strong positive vision for change, not back to “business as ususal”.
Support remains strong in the South and East, where commitment to democracy has been consolidated by funds for development and cash. Public support switches when countries become net contributors.
Reform. The EU does reform, but slowly (e.g. CAP). It is the largest rules based market in the world – the left believes in a rules based order, the right opposes it.
Tax. If all multinationals paid tax at the same level as conventional firms the sum would be greater than the deficits of all member states
The Leave/Remain divide is more about education than age – the 65+ graduates (a small group) are strongly left wing and strongly pro EU
Climate Change. A recurring theme, can only be tackled collaboratively.
Artificial Intelligence. A major policy challenge which we are not preparing for.
May is not resilient, but reckless. She invented her own red lines and closed down scope for negotiation at the beginning.
We were right to support issuing of Article 50 notice to authorise the government to seek a negotiated deal in response to the referendum result. That was not authority to sign a deal without Parliament’s agreement.
She has fought at every stage to avoid consultation, scrutiny and accountability. She tried for an approach where Parliament’s only involvement would have been to sign off the final deal in the last few weeks. She is still not listening, merely repeating her personal view of Brexit.
She has experienced the greatest Parliamentary defeat by a head of government in the UK in history (larger than the defeat of Charles 1st)
We are now at phase three of the Labour Conference plan. It is time to kill unacceptable options and focus on real choices.
Labour now rules out:
- May deal (with or without tweaks)
- No deal – no majority
- Canada – weakens rights, no protection for services, no solution to Irish border
- Hard border in Ireland
This leaves only two options:
- Close economic relationship – a customs union and a close relationship with the single market (“a” because you can’t be “members” if not members of EU)
- Public vote
Time has run out. Leaving requires:
at least 6 Bills passing Parliament (none yet drafted) on: Brexit Implementation; Immigration; Agriculture and fisheries; Trade; Financial services; Plus 700 Statutory Instruments
An example of the problems is Eurojust. As partners in Eurojust we hold a significant number of people charged with serious crimes involving several member states. Without an agreement we have no legal basis to hold them. Do we let them go? Do we withdraw from cooperation on invetigations?
This makes extension of Article 50 inevitable, whatever the plan.
Would participation in the EU Parliamentary Election be a public vote?
EU would be very supportive if we change our minds
Public opinion has shifted, especially in Labour leave areas – the leavers of working age have swung disproportionately towards remain.
Brexit reflects a Europe wide politics of grievance , but Brexit is not top of the EU’s agenda
EU is not perfect – some big failures, but no Brexit deal is better, or addresses our real problems. Remain and reform is still the best option.
We need a clear story about how we want to reform the EU. We need to continue the democratisation of the EU. We have allies across the EU, and they are desperate for us to stay
Brexit does not help with our problems
Outside the EU arbitration of disputes is in the hands of pure neoliberal systems
Will people be content if they look back in ten years and say, letting people die for want of diabetes treatment was worth it?
We need to bridge the divide between cosmopolitans and communitarians
On balance, Cosmopolitans value rights, and mobility, they see globalisation as opportunity and value skills and education
Communitarians did not benefit from globalisation and experienced it as loss. They value responsibility over rights, welcome rules, patriotism and the nation state. They are suspicious of the big state, and want more local control.
New Labour held the two together “tough on crime…” and “cool Britannia”, but began to lose this in the mid 2000s, before the financial crisis. A key moment was Blair’s speech in 2005 which described globalisation as an unstoppable “force of nature”. Politics began to prioritise identity and rights over cohesion. This made it easy for Tories to divide and rule.
- Strengthen common bonds across diverse people, groups and communities
- Focus on responsibility and rights
- Tackle mobility – the problem that able young people move to cities and never return
- Build an active state in partnership with business
- Regulate immigration/the labour market (like we do other markets)
- Be clear that patriotism is not an insult
The strongest leave vote was in areas with the strongest “import shock” – e.g. buying from China things we used to make here ourselves.
The Tories abolished the migration impact fund which had eased pressures in particular communities
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of redistribution
We need a new Marshall Plan for communities:
Tax assets – revalue Council Tax, reform Inheritance Tax; Land tax; Tax multinationals; Invest in education (France has set maximum primary class sizes at 12 in deprived areas); Restore Sure Start; Regenerate places (including land reclamation where urban decay constantly reminds people of the lost past); build affordable housing and restore size standards
Labour has lost its voice on difficult issues
We need to recreate the party of integration – not saying different things to different people
The right values security over freedom
There are only two kinds of Brexit – pointless (Norway) or painful (No deal)
We need to reinvogporate the nation state
Radical devolution of power to localities
“After Brexit, I warn you not to be ordinary, young, old, or ill”
Our democracy failed after 2008, which should have been the big opportunity for the left. We need an economy which works for everyone. Since 2008 we have lost 500 libraries, £70m cut from schools budgets, Homelessness risen, 4.5 million children in poverty
AI is a major challenge we are not prepared for. HMG project that 9 million jobs are vulnerable by 2030, including many middle class professional jobs which have largely been preserved so far. It took 100 years and a lot of battles to reach a settlement from the last industrial revolution. This one will be faster.
Growing GDP is no use unless it grows for everyone
A home of your own should be a right (a 30 year old who saves 5% of her income will have saved a deposit for a house by the time she is 75)
We should recover a trust in politics, as serving the people and as a noble profession
We are in dangerous times:
Economic malaise – leave people cut off, divided and angry
Divisive politics makes scapegoating easy for populists
People reject “business as usual” politics
Growing view that violence is a legitimate way of resolving issues
Resurgence of politicians willing to use these for political advantage
It is not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator: we should not normalise greed, fear or violence
We must rise above Trump and those he has empowered
Populist is not the same as popular – the most popular budget ever was Brown’s 2002 one, which raised NI charges to pay for NHS
Trump explained people’s suffering and offered solutions to people grasping at straws
We must offer an economy which works for all
In a new referendum we must be offering new opportunity to change
We need to codify our constitution
Optimism – we need a strong, positive story to tell about the future inside a reformed EU
Rights – a key element of left politics. The right prioritises security over freedom
All options will upset someone – go for our values and what we believe is the national interest