Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Nobody can stop Labour members deciding Brexit

Skulduggery at conference won the battle but will not win the war, write Alison McGovern and Heidi Alexander

If you ask Labour party members what the biggest issue facing our country is they would overwhelmingly tell you it is our impending departure from the European Union. If you then put it to those same people that Labour policy should not be determined by the leadership alone, but informed by the views of the members then they would agree in similar numbers. Simple logic then dictates that if Brexit is the biggest issue facing Britain, and Labour members should get to vote on Labour policy, then there should have been a meaningful vote on Brexit policy at our annual conference in Brighton in September. That members were denied such a vote thanks to a behind the scenes stitch-up by Momentum is as bizarre as it is worrying.

Nobody should be naïve about this. Procedural skull-duggery on the conference floor is as much of an annual tradition as singing the Red Flag or embarrassing dancing at the Mirror party. Jeremy Corbyn would not be the first leader to seek to prevent tricky votes going ahead, nor will he be the last. Nor should we get hung up on the hypocrisy of those who preach party democracy when the membership agree with them, but seek to silence open debate when they fear they might not get the outcome they want. The issue here is not the process, it is the substance.

Brexit is not a normal issue and it must not be treated as such. Leaving the EU will affect almost every aspect of life in Britain in some way. From the speed with which new medicines become available to the way we deal with credit card fraud, from the rights we have at work to the ease with which we can go on holiday. It is all affected and it must all be decided in the coming years.

The reason we founded the Labour Campaign for the Single Market and pushed for a vote at conference is because we believe that remaining in the single market and customs union after Brexit is the best way we can realise our Labour values. Labour has long believed in a market economy, but unlike Tory ideologues we recognise that markets need strong regulations and protections. As Gordon Brown puts it, we recognise that markets need morals, that the rules that govern our economy must be determined by a shared sense of the common good and fairness between people as well as by the desire for growth and prosperity. We believe that the global challenges we face, on climate change, security or migration, can only be tackled by working in a spirit of co-operation with our friends and allies. And we believe that people who want to move abroad for work, or who come to our country to contribute, are doing a fundamentally decent and human thing and should not be marginalised and scapegoated.

The fight to stay in the single market is a fight for those values. Those on the right who have beat the drum of Brexit for years and who now hold the upper hand in this weak Tory government are the same hardliners who have resisted progressive change for decades. They want to rip us out of the single market precisely because they want to dismantle the consumer, environmental and workplace protections that Labour has helped to build. They have been talking up the possibility of a ‘no deal’ outcome in recent weeks because they dream of a grotesque deregulated dystopia that even many Tories privately find alarming.

That is why this is not an ordinary debate, and that is why Labour members need to be able to make their voices heard and speak up for Labour values of fairness, cooperation and internationalism. It is not too late to change the outcome and keep Britain in the single market, and nobody should be giving up because of what happened in Brighton. The Labour Campaign for the Single Market is only just getting started and there are two things we are working on.

Firstly we are fighting in Westminster against a hard Tory Brexit. The EU withdrawal bill is back in the commons soon and Labour members of parliament who support the campaign are working across the House of Commons to resist the most damaging elements of the Bill. We have put down amendments on forcing a vote on the final Brexit deal, on restricting the use of dictatorial Henry VIII powers, and crucially on securing a separate vote on leaving the European Economic Area through which we are members of the single market.

But while we take on the Tories in Westminster, we also need to win the argument within our own party. Labour’s position has moved substantially since the general election and that is to be welcomed. We both broke the whip in June and a number of shadow ministers were sacked for supporting an amendment that is essentially now Labour policy. This should give us all hope that as the realities of Brexit become clear the party position can move in our direction once again.

This hope must be a source of determination, not complacency. We believe that if we can put the arguments for the single market to party members we can build a movement that can shift Labour policy decisively. That is why we are planning a tour of the country, speaking in constituency Labour parties and making the case room by room. There will be more information on the website soon about where we will be and how you can help by inviting us to speak to your local party. Our message is clear; Labour party members may have been denied a vote at conference, but nobody can stop them debating Brexit and making their voices heard.

Brexit may be a unique issue, but the challenge before us is a familiar one. Win the argument in the party. Win the argument in the country. Change our country for the better.


Alison McGovern MP and Heidi Alexander MP are co-chairs of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market. They tweet at @Alison_McGovern and @heidi_mp


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Alison McGovern MP

is chair of Progress

Heidi Alexander MP

is member of parliament for Lewisham East

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