UK: Pitting climate justice against remain won’t make Brexit go away for Labour

Conference is shaping up to be a false contest between Europe and the environment. It doesn’t have to be this way

Atmospherically speaking, Brexit will certainly dominate Labour’s conference, as it has for the Liberal Democrats, and will for the Tories. All the conversations outside the hall, in fringe meetings, on beaches, in pubs, either side of the karaoke (activists love microphones, no one knows why) will revolve around it. The “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit” tote bags will have been updated. “Remain, Reform, Revolt” on one side, and – optimistically – “Labour can stop Brexit” on the other; there will be no shortage of views as to how.

Labour is, with or without Jo Swinson’s missteps, plainly the party of remain: in its membership and its voters; in its stated policy of backing a second referendum; in most of its MPs and the bulk of its shadow cabinet; in its visceral reaction to Boris Johnson and his crash-and-burn fantasies. Yet the leadership is still clinging to the dated electoral calculation that it can only win if they pick up votes from both leavers and remainers, and the idea that it is possible, if you’re clever enough, to simultaneously support both outcomes.

“If this conference is successfully branded as a fight for climate justice, that won’t make Brexit go away”

This will come to a head over the issue of a Labour-negotiated exit deal. The Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (Tulo) reiterated on Tuesday night their determination to go into an election with the promise of negotiating their own Left Brexit, then taking that to the public for a vote. This apparently makes sense within the union DNA, negotiating a deal, then advising their members to vote for or against it. It sure as hell doesn’t make sense to anyone else, and it is not a tenable manifesto position, torching what should be their strongest argument: we can make this Tory-confected nightmare end. With John McDonnell now as openly pro-remain as he has ever been, this crack has snaked to the top of the party and cannot be papered over – especially with 91 motions submitted by constituency Labour parties (CLPs), the vast majority of which are calling for Labour to explicitly back remain.

Remember the success of last year: 150 mainly pro-remain motions were composited in a tense, five-hour meeting into the single motion that Keir Starmer announced to a standing ovation: Labour became, in September 2018, a party that believed in a second referendum, with remain on the ballot. This is probably the most significant achievement any anti-Brexit campaign has ever managed, most of the other hurdles to Brexit having been erected by Brexiters themselves. Never underestimate how much people can get done when they understand the rules.

However, Lexit has one more manœuvre up its sleeve; this is where it all goes a bit The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There are rules, and then there are deeper laws. There’s no way to head off a repeat of last year’s remain roar, but an alternative motion can change the frame, especially if it’s been submitted by more CLPs. Explicitly pushed by Momentum, and encouraged by the leadership, Labour for a Green New Deal have got 128 CLPs calling for the party to commit to zero emissions by 2030. It’s not quite “nearly double” the 91 Brexit-related motions that have been submitted this year, as a rather bellicose announcement from the New Dealers claimed, but they could certainly make a claim as bold as “they have more”.

From the outside, it is impossible to imagine why these issues would ever be set in competition against one another: if there’s a remainer in the UK who doesn’t also want to tackle climate change, I’ve yet to encounter them. Indeed, one of the core arguments for staying in the EU is that climate change is best fought collectively, and the EU’s proudest moments (unless you count “not having a war”) have been its environmental achievements. The economist Ann Pettifor, the architect of the Green New Deal, is fiercely critical of the EU but a stalwart remainer, identifying these institutions as the bulwark against the rise of fascism, which is the major threat, both to social democracies and the environment.

But this is a coded red-on-red battle: Lexiters versus left remainers (and, indeed, remainers across the membership spectrum, which is now pretty much all of it), struggling for control of the narrative.

This is a very common line at the local level when criticism of the Brexit project, and Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to oppose it, comes up against loyalists who will hear no word against him. It is that trivial people fight to stay in the EU, while serious people are fighting for the environment, whose growing emergency will make our obsession with treaties and institutions look like deckchair-tidying on the Titanic. It’s a completely false binary, but a very convenient one, since it equates seriousness of political purpose with unquestioning loyalty to the party’s leadership.

But it’s not without jeopardy. If this conference is successfully branded as a fight for climate justice, that won’t make Brexit go away. It won’t reduce the urgency of coming up with a manifesto position that voters can actually understand, and it won’t meet the democratic duty towards the members. There isn’t time for this division to play out subtly. It cannot be bumped down the list of priorities.

Plainly, all these ambitions can work in concert, and become stronger and more inexorable when they do: you can fight for regional renewal founded on dispersed green infrastructure, and for a genuine and sustainable prosperity that’s based on an entirely different model of energy creation, at the same time as taking your place at the centre of an international rule-based order whose own green revolution will be reinforced by transnational solidarity. The tergiversations and control-freakery of the leadership have turned this into a false choice between climate justice and remain, but that loyalty-or‑bust reasoning may not survive the transparency of the conference floor.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

Zoe Williams

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