How to get Brexit discussed at conference

Brexit is without a doubt the most significant issue facing our country. The Labour party is the opposition in parliament and seeking to form the next government. We know that Theresa May will have to put whatever deal (or not) she comes back with before parliament in the autumn and Labour members of parliament will be whipped to vote on it. We know that vote could lead to the fall of the government and a general election, or even a People’s Vote on the final deal. Pretty big stakes. So, when our party’s sovereign body, annual conference, meets in Liverpool at the end of September there will surely be a debate and a vote to set the direction of Labour policy, right?

Unfortunately, not necessarily. But members can make it happen. Here is how it works and how you can help.

We know a significant number of contemporary motions were submitted by local Labour parties before the 13 September deadline, promoted variously by the LabourSay.EU campaign, Remain Labour and the Labour Campaign for a People’s Vote. Submitted motions will be grouped together in topics by the Conference Arrangements Committee, and there will then be what is known as the priorities ballot – where conference delegations vote to decide which topics should be debated.

If you are going to be at conference, you are on the frontline in this battle. Please make sure you talk to your delegation and anyone else you know to ensure they understand the importance of the priorities ballot and ensuring Brexit is prioritised in it – each delegation gets four votes – only one is needed for Brexit. It is also important to make sure they realise that each constituency Labour party delegation has only one vote in the priorities ballot and whoever gets to the balloting area first casts the ballot paper on behalf of the whole delegation. If you are a delegate do not underestimate the lengths other delegates might go to: one delegate two years ago got up and out first only to find his bus overtaken by another delegate on a bike. If CLP delegates are tempted by four other motions, it is worth knowing that the affiliates section of conference (trades unions and socialist societies) will also vote to prioritise four motions. It is usually clear what the big unions are prioritising and therefore there is no point in CLP delegates voting for those as they will be prioritised anyway. Make sure you are aware what the trade unions will be supporting as it may help in persuading wavering delegates.

Wavering delegates, I hear some people ask: surely everyone realises that this is the most important issue facing the country and we must discuss it? But no. The new establishment in the Labour party has learned old tricks. It turns out that despite many of them espousing for years the importance of members’ control and the sovereignty of conference when they actually control the leadership they would rather not be constrained by such niceties. Last year Momentum whipped delegates to vote against prioritising Brexit on the basis that there would be a speech by Keir Starmer and a statement from the National Executive Committee. This was a farce. The discussion was based on the bland statement in the National Policy Forum report and the NEC issued its promised statement, which had been agreed the evening before, at the conclusion of the debate to be voted on later in the day. The timing of its release can only have been a deliberate attempt to avoid anyone pointing out deficiencies in the text which was not much better than the NPF report.

Even if you are not going to be at conference you can still help. If your CLP has a meeting to instruct conference delegates go along and propose or support that they are mandated to vote to prioritise the motions on Brexit. Whatever people’s views on Brexit, they are likely to be open to the argument that conference should discuss the most important issue facing the country at the moment. If your CLP does not have a mandating meeting you could propose a motion at the ordinary meeting before conference or get in touch with them and get other members to do so too and make clear your views that Brexit needs to be discussed.

Current Labour policy on Brexit was agreed at annual conference in 2016: ‘accepting the result of the referendum but noting full access to the single European market for British goods and services is vital for jobs and prosperity in Britain; that unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable then the option of retaining European Union membership should be kept; and that the final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum’. Our 2017 manifesto somewhat fudged the issue. This may have been an attempt to ride both horses, but it is not sustainable in autumn 2018 as parliament faces its vote on whatever final deal May pulls out of the fire.

We need a proper debate at conference that agrees broad principles Labour MPs can be asked to vote on in the autumn and we can all campaign on if there is a general election.

So, getting Brexit prioritised in the ballot is the first step. Then all the topics which were prioritised will be composited. This is the process whereby all the motions on a topic are sewn together into a manageable motion and any amendments. In order to have your CLP named as supporting the motion some of your wording has to go in there, but it is also important to get wording that will maximise the vote on conference floor, not just among the CLP delegates but among trade unions as well. Once upon a time compositing used to be done by chopping up motions and sticking them back together with scissors and glue. Nowadays it can be done on a computer, but the outcome still matters as some delegates will decide on the basis of the final text and may be looking for an excuse to vote in a particular way. And the debate on conference floor matters too – so if you are delegate prepare your speeches and do what you can to be called in the debate.

By Luke Akehurst and Mary Wimbury